He Will Not Be Getting Back to Me

Rabbi Eitam Henkin, Hy”d.
Rabbi Eitam Henkin, Hy”d.

Thursday evening of Chol Hamoed found me taking in the joy of Yom Tov with a guest, when a friend — a fellow acquaintance of Rabbi Eitam Henkin, Hashem yinkom damo, who had also collaborated on research projects with this giant, reached out and gave me the sad news. And my Yom Tov would not be the same anymore.

We had all begun the year of 5776 with the words tichleh shanah v’kileloseha, tachel shanah u’birchoseha, imploring Hashem to make this year different. An end to the suffering. An end to the bloodshed. On Hoshana Rabbah we would all tearfully beg Hashem from the depths of our hearts, “Hoshanah haharuga Alecha…v’nechesheves k’tzon tivchah, help Your People who are slaughtered for Your Name, and considered like sheep taken to the slaughter.” Finally, in Tefillas Geshem on Shemini Atzeres, we would cry out, “Toldosam nishpach damam alecha k’mayim, their children’s blood is being spilled like water” all because they are Your chosen children.

And yet, here it was; a mother and father, slaughtered with brutality, with hatred, premeditated, in front of their four young, precious children—for the crime of being the children of Hashem. Zman simchaseinu, a time for rejoicing had become tainted with the immense pain of yet more Jewish blood being spilled. I had heard about a terrorist attack earlier that day. But tragically, with the immense amount of Jewish blood being spilled, we can sometimes become numb… tragically.

It took the words Rabbi Eitam and Mrs. Na’ama Henkin, Hy”d, to jar me out of my aloofness, and to cause me to literally begin quaking. Rabbi Eitam owes me an email, you see.

I had had the privilege to correspond with Rabbi Eitam in recent months. I had gone over one of his brilliant, extensive, comprehensive maamarim in recent week as one piece of a feature I was preparing. As all of his illuminating writings—spanning the gamut of Jewish history, and kol haTorah kulah!—were heavily footnoted, sound in reason, and unassailable in accuracy and reliability. I sent Rabbi Eitam my draft in the hopes that he could provide constructive criticism and feedback. In his classic humility, always addressing each and every correspondence with respect and deference, although I don’t begin to approach a fraction of his scholarship and breadth, he replied on Motzoei the first days, “Moadim l’simchah…I will read, and reply to you after the chag.”

To the great loss of Klal Yisrael, including thousands of talmidei chachamim and Jewish historians around the world who hung on his every word, and respected and revered his illuminating insight into every area of Jewish literature, he will not be getting back to me—or to the thousands of others who thirsted to learn from him.

My draft, as it currently reads, credits Rabbi Eitam Henkin for his assistance. I never dreamt that I would credit him under these terrible circumstances.

Explains Reb Yosef Housman, who corresponded with Rabbi Eitam extensively:

“Although I never had the zechus to meet Rabbi Eitam Henkin, Hy”d, personally, I was quite familiar with him. I had the privilege of joining him in many, many correspondences in Torah forums over the course of the past five years. We always looked forward to his writing; always being refreshingly informative, well-grounded, and he will be sorely missed by his colleagues and readers.

Reb Eitam was nothing short of a giant; in Torah, and in exemplary middos, as well as a brilliant scholar in history and related topics. He wrote a sefer on the topic of checking for bug infestation in food, covering the issue from exploring the halachic chiyuv to the practical metzius. He was actually in the process of publishing a sefer on the yesodos of hilchos Shabbos, which is slated to be published in the near future.

He had a distinct style whenever he took to investigating a topic, whether halachic or history-related (the two were most often intertwined). And above all, his mentschlichkeit, his sheer neimus was legendary. He always interacted with his others with the utmost kvod habriyos, explaining and helping others, whether by supplying them with helpful insights or material for their personal projects, or in understanding a difficult passage in a Rishon, etc. He always let his peers have the feeling that they were on the same level as him, even when that was not the case.

Indeed, to anyone who has dabbled in Jewish historical research—or has otherwise an appreciation for Torah scholarship—the name Rabbi Eitam Henkin was familiar and revered. And to anyone who has perused any of those pieces, it is astounding to believe that they were authored by a young man in his twenties, or, more recently, in his thirties.

Everything about his style, his intimate familiarity with thousands of years of Torah authorship, his iron command of every area of Torah and halachah struck the reader as having been written by a zakein v’ragil.

Klal Yisrael wasn’t only struck in its heart. It was robbed of a brilliant giant who brought honor to his family name which is so familiar to us.

Harav Doniel Kleinman, a Rav of Nachlas Dovid in Flatbush, has dedicated himself to the restoration of the teshuvos of Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt”l. He, of course, is known as the preeminent posek in America—one with whom Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, never argues, and quotes him numerous time as a final authority.

The first volume—on Orach Chaim—which has already appeared, holds 170 teshuvos. The second volume, which is set to be published soon, will hold 175 teshuvos. This has involved scouring the globe for lost or obscure teshuvos, as well as the already-published teshuvos.

He explains, “I initially came to Rabbi Eitam as one who knew his great-grandfather’s style, and as one who has dedicated himself to his illustrious ancestor’s legacy. [His great-grandfather] Rav Henkin to him was everything… he had dedicated himself to his Torah. The giant that I came to know was a serious talmid chacham, a gaon in every area of Torah. He became indispensable to this project, and his fingerprints are everywhere in it. He was always on the mark; always displaying such a deep understanding of the complex halachic matters. I have lost a dear friend, a right hand in this important work, and our community has lost a great asset.”

Rabbi Kleinman explains about the caliber of his character:

“His ehrlichkeit and his eidelkeit were above and beyond all else. He would have become a foremost posek. Klal Yisrael needs ehrliche, humble poskim with no airs about them, and deeply knowledgable… and that’s who he was. In all matters, he would say his opinion respectfully—and always qualify that if I felt otherwise, that was fine too. His deference to daas Torah of Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky (the Rabo muvhak of Rabbi Kleinman) was extreme.

And then there is the last gift that he left to the world this past Elul. “About two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we came into a siman on treifos. The teshuvah includes 15 pesakim on treifos that Rav Henkin had written back during his time in the far East of Russia (close to the Asian border) where Rav Henkin had spent time as a Rav (this is referenced in Rabbi Henkin’s maamar on his grandfather).

“No matter how many times we tried, we could not make sense of it (Rav Henkin’s style was terse), and the manuscript had gotten lost. That siman is a great indicator of what his approach was like to Torah. Revisiting again and again… but he didn’t give up, and he searched incessantly, until he found the page Erev Rosh Hashanah, and that piece illuminated the entire teshuvah. His final gift to the Torah world.

“He left us in middle of the work. I will never have such a resource again,” sighs Rabbi Kleinman (who travelled to Eretz Yisrael for the shivah).

Rabbi Eitam ben Yehuda, Hy”d, has now ascended to Shamayim where he is surely reunited with his illustrious grandfather whose Torah he has so toiled to beautify and spread.

Hashem yinkom damo. Yehi zichro baruch.

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