Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (7 November 1878 – 24 October 1953), known by the name of his magnum opus, Chazon Ish, was a Belarusian born Orthodox rabbi who later became one of the leaders of Haredi Judaism in Israel
Avraham Yeshaya Karlitz was born in Kosava, in the Grodno Governorate of the Russian Empire (now Brest Region, Belarus), the eldest son of Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Karelitz, the Rav of Kosova; his mother was Rasha, the daughter of Rabbi Shaul Katzenelbogen. His younger brothers were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yitzchak, and Rabbi Moshe. Rabbi Yitzchak Karelitz succeeded their father as the Rav of Kosova; he and his wife and daughter were shot to death in their home by the Germans in mid-1942. A sister, Miriam, married Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon. The Steipler referred to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya, as his mentor as long as the latter was alive.
As a youth, Karelitz was sent to study under Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. He did not take to the Brisker method of study, and later it became clear that he actually opposed it. After two years, he returned home and continued to study with his father who was head of the local Beth din. He married Bashe Bei.
He moved to Vilna in about 1920, and became close to Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, consulting with him in all religious and communal matters. Encouraged by Rabbi Grodzinski and with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s help, the Chazon Ish settled in Eretz Israel, then the British Mandate of Palestine, in 1933. His house in Bnei Brak became the address for thousands who sought religious guidance.
There was a closeness of the Chazon Ish, his brother-in-law the Steipler and Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky that spanned from Europe to post-1948 Israel.
Karelitz devoted his life to the study of Torah while simultaneously gaining knowledge in secular sciences such as astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, and botany. After his marriage, he continued to lead an extremely modest life, his wife providing for their needs while he spent day and night studying Torah in-depth. He did not have any children.
Though he held no official position, the Chazon Ish nevertheless became a recognized worldwide authority on many matters relating to Jewish law and life. He was not appointed as communal leader, yet his positions and rulings influenced the life and institutions of religious Jewry, especially in Israel. He did not publish many responsa, yet still achieved recognition as a leading authority on halakha.
He declined to participate in any of the religious-political movements which were very active prior to, and during the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet, he had an immense influence on Haredi Judaism in Israel, whose formative period coincided with his years in Israel. He maintained an anti-Zionist viewpoint and begrudgingly accepted the existence of the Israeli state.
In recognition of his deep insight and interest in many fields of study, many sought his guidance on social and political issues. David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who became the second president of Israel, visited him once to discuss political-religious issues. The story is told that the Chazon Ish argued that the secular community's needs should defer to those of the religious community. He used the Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 32b) of two camels which meet on a narrow mountain pass as a metaphor. A camel without goods was expected to defer to a camel laden with goods; similarly, the Chazon Ish contended secular society should defer to religious society, which bore the "goods" of tradition.
There is a variety of Balady citron in his name, which he certified for use as an etrog of the Four species. After one Sukkot, the Chazon Ish handed Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz a packet of seeds taken from the etrog he had used for the festival and instructed him to plant them in his yard. Rabbi Lefkowitz, who had no agricultural experience, followed his mentor's instructions to plant and water it, and the tree grew and bore fruit. Every year the Chazon Ish came to select his etrog for the holiday from the tree, as did his brother-in-law, the Steipler Gaon, and other Gedolei Yisrael. Rabbi Lefkowitz also allowed etrog growers to take cuttings from the tree to grow entire orchards of etrogim certified as kosher (mehudar) by the Chazon Ish
In 1911, he published his first work on Orach Chayim and other parts of the Shulchan Aruch in Vilna, anonymously under the title Chazon Ish, meaning "Vision of Man", the word Ish alluding to the first letters of his two names, the title by which he became almost exclusively known.
Although essentially an academic 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 Shabbat and on cultivation by hydroponics during the sabbatical year are two illustrations of his practical approach. Chazon Ish wrote over 40 books in clear Hebrew.
In contrast to other great Achronim such as R. Chaim Soloveitchik, the Chazon Ish is known for avoiding formulaic or methodical analysis of Talmudic passages, instead preferring a more varied and intuitive approach similar to that of the Rishonim. The Chazon Ish also discounted the need to delve into Musar as a formal study, feeling that a life dedicated to traditional Torah study would guide one toward the proper path. He particularly rejected elements of the Novardok philosophy, such as their extreme self-effacement and anti-social behaviors.
In one of his regular lectures, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman spoke about studying Kabbalah, and related that the Chazon Ish had vast knowledge in Kabbalah. The Chazon Ish studied with a secret kabbalist known as "The Baker of Kosovo."
A fictionalized portrait of Chazon Ish by his onetime disciple, the Yiddish poet and novelist Chaim Grade, is to be found in Grade's epic novel "Tsemakh Atlas: Di Yeshive" (New York & Los Angeles: Yiddish Natzyonaln Arbeiter Farband, 1967-1968, two volumes); translated into English as The Yeshiva [Curt Leviant, tr.] (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976-1977, two volumes). Chazon Ish appears there as "Reb Avraham-Shaye Kosover." (Grade himself appears as "Chaikl Vilner.")
A number of multi-volume biographies have been published about the Chazon Ish, including "Pe'er Hador", and the more recent "Maaseh Ish", both in Hebrew.
A 1,000-page academic biography of the Chazon Ish by Prof. Benny Brown was published by Magnes Press in 2011. The contents of this academic biography were subsequently and respectfully debated by Dr. Brown vs. R. Joshua Envel in Yeshurun journal, Vol. 30. In the following edition of Yeshurun, Vol. 31, R. Envel presented his own hypothesis how to systematically conceptualize the methodology of Chazon Ish. R. Envel's approach was then the subject of correspondence with several readers in Yeshurun, Vol. 32.. More recently, a chapter from Dr. Brown's book was translated and published in Ḥakirah, Vol. 24
May the merit of the tzadik Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz protect us all. Amen