I was surprised but not shocked to see the passing of Rav Nota Greenblatt, zt”l, described in last week’s Jewish newspapers in a small blurb. I was surprised because a great man like Rav Nota deserves much more than a small blurb! I was not shocked since outside of Memphis, his adopted city since 1949, he was not well known in the broader community.
Rav Nota made a giant impact on American Jewry despite his relatively low profile. When he began his rabbinic career, American Orthodoxy was in deep disarray. Yet, when he left this world 70 years later, American Orthodoxy was exponentially stronger. Rav Nota had a large part in transforming North America from a Torah wasteland to a substantial makom Torah.
Rav Nota made his most impact outside the New York area, where he was needed most. First, he (with his renowned nephew Rav Efraim Greenblatt, zt”l, author of Teshuvot Rivevot Efraim) transformed Memphis into a city of considerable Torah learning. He established the first full-time Jewish schools in the entire region, the Memphis Jewish Academy and later the yeshiva high school. When you speak to any Orthodox Jew from Memphis and mention Rav Nota, they will react with an expression of profound awe and respect.
Milah, Mikvaot, Kashrut and Eruvin
His influence spread throughout the South. He served as a mohel and built mikvaot throughout the South. For example, Rav Nota made the first mikvah in Danville, Virginia, when my father-in-law, Rav Shmuel Tokayer, z”l, served as the Orthodox rabbi in that town during the early 1970s. In addition, Rav Nota oversaw shechita in Iowa for OU Kosher for decades, and he built eruvin (I had the privilege in 1992 of seeing the eruv he created in Memphis). However, his most significant impact was the tens of thousands of gittin he administered throughout North America.
Rav Nota emerged as a top-tier halachic authority despite his flurry of activity. Rav Nota was a leading talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, whom Rav Moshe held in the highest regard. In fact, Rav Moshe stayed at Rav Nota’s home when visiting Memphis to raise money for his yeshiva. Moreover, our family has material evidence of Rav Moshe and Rav Nota’s close connection. Hanging in the basement of my mother-in-law’s home is the teshuva Rav Moshe addressed to my father-in-law, which appears in Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah II:78. Most interestingly, Rav Moshe wrote the teshuva on Rav Nota’s stationery!
Many other gedolim impacted Rav Nota. First, he had the opportunity to interact with Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav) during his childhood in Jerusalem. He spent a very formative year as an older teen learning under Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in Boston. Finally, Rav Nota attributed his long years to a special bracha he received from Rav Kook when he was critically ill as a child.
Rav Nota’s most significant accomplishment was his administration of gittin throughout North America from 1952 until very close to his death last week. First, a bit of explanation is needed to appreciate his contribution. Very few people can serve as a mesader get (get administrator). It is the rabbinic equivalent of a brain surgeon.
It requires a high level of expertise in rendering halachic decisions, considerable general training in rendering halachic decisions, and extensive practical training regarding siddur gittin. Even in Israel there are only approximately 100 mesadrei gittin with the requisite knowledge and experience to serve in this role. In North America today there are about 30.
In addition, we use a sofer to write gittin in modified ktav ashurit (the writing used for writing Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot). Moreover, writing a get requires an additional layer of expertise. A gittin sofer must have the necessary knowledge and training to meet halachic specifications.
For this reason, gittin are typically administered only in a major Jewish community that is blessed with both a mesader get and a sofer gittin. What were the many small Jewish communities throughout the United States to do about gittin if they lacked a mesader get and sofer gittin? Came Rav Nota to the rescue! He was both a mesader get, having received extensive training from Rav Moshe Feinstein in the years during and after World War II, and a get sofer! A rare combination indeed!
Beginning in 1952 until the age of 92 (!!) in 2017, Rav Nota traveled throughout the country to write and administer gittin. The fact that communities throughout the continent had properly administered gittin during this period is due almost entirely to Rav Nota! Rav Nota almost single-handedly maintained the purity of the Jewish nation in North America for 65 years!
Recall that much is at stake when administering a get. If a get is not conducted correctly and the woman remarries on that basis, children from a subsequent union are mamzerim. Moreover, the children of women who remarry without gittin are mamzerim. With his extraordinary efforts, Rav Nota almost single-handedly prevented the proliferation of mamzerut throughout the continent! What an incredible debt of gratitude we owe this great man!
Cities for Writing Gittin
Rav Nota’s monumental impact is documented in Rav Mendel Senderovic’s “HaAretz L’Areha,” an authoritative work explaining how we write gittin in cities worldwide. Unlike a ketubah, one identifies a town in a get by the bodies of water upon which it rests. So, for example, in Manhattan, we write “New York, the city that rests on the ocean and the Hudson River.”
The Aruch HaShulchan (Even HaEzer 128:39) writes, “certainly when writing a get in a new place, one must consult with the leading poskim of the day and follow their ruling.” So much is at stake regarding a get that we must consult leading authorities regarding this critical matter.
To ensure that proper gittin are conducted throughout the continent, Rav Nota established new places to write gittin. When Rav Moshe was alive, Rav Nota consulted Rav Moshe on how to write gittin in such areas. Examples include Austin, Chattanooga, El Paso, Jacksonville, Mountain Brook (Alabama), Nashville, New Orleans, Portland (Oregon), San Antonio, and Tampa. After Rav Moshe passed away in 1986, it was Rav Nota to whom we turned to establish new cities to write gittin. Such towns include Boca Raton, Calgary, Costa Mesa, Dayton, Des Moines, Edmonton, Iowa City, Las Vegas, Massapequa, Myrtle Beach, Patchogue, Phoenix, Raleigh, Salt Lake City and San Diego. In addition, the cities that Rav Nota clarified how we write gittin include Albany, Binghamton, Harrisburg, Kansas City, Richmond, Savanna, Scranton, South Bend, Tulsa, Tuscan and, of course, Memphis. When I felt it necessary to establish Teaneck as a new locale to write gittin in 1996, Rav Nota was among the great rabbanim from whom I sought (and received) approval before beginning to write.
The breadth of these cities shows the breathtaking magnitude, reach and impact of Rav Nota regarding gittin. And even with this unbelievable level of activity, Rav Nota remained a top-tier Torah scholar. In the hesped he delivered for Rav Greenblatt, Rav Moshe Heinemann noted that Rav Nota was a baki (expert) in the entire Shas and Shulchan Aruch. In the hesped he shared with Yeshiva University talmidim, Rav Avi Lebowitz noted that while many people have finished Shas many times, only Rav Nota completed Shas many times in airports and airplanes!
While Rav Nota sustained us for 65 years, he has not left us empty-handed. He had the foresight to train many mesadrei gittin who followed his path. His talmidim include Rav Lebowitz, who handles gittin in the San Francisco Bay area; Rav Shmuel Khoshkerman, who administers gittin in the Atlanta area; and Rav Senderovic, who follows in Rav Greenblatt’s footsteps and travels throughout the country to maintain kedushat Yisrael.
I had the good fortune to be welcomed to Rav Greenblatt’s home in Memphis in May 1992, where he sat with me for over an hour to field the many questions I had for him regarding siddur gittin. Memorably, he told me that he “had the privilege of often paying for a get” when the couple could not afford his travel expenses. I later heard that Rav Greenblatt financially sustained his family with wise real estate investments.
In this age of the “democratization of Torah,” where rabbanim make every effort to make Torah available and accessible to all, I long ago composed a long piece in English setting forth gittin practices in the United States and Israel. I sent it to numerous leading rabbanim for their review. In a strongly written letter, Rav Nota responded that I was by no means to publish this article. He feared that unqualified rabbis would begin to administer gittin if I published such an article. I heeded Rav Nota’s exhortation.
Recently, many have urged me to write a book similar to the work I composed about eruvin (“Walking the Line: Hilchot Eruvin From the Sources to the Streets”) in time for Daf Yomi’s learning of Masechet Gittin. So I consulted Rav Elazar Meyer Teitz, who told me to steadfastly abide by Rav Nota’s guidance. Rav Teitz said to me that Rav Nota certainly knew the realities on the ground and should be followed. Thus we make one exception to the ongoing march to give the broader community a glimpse into the inner workings of halacha.
Bnei Yisrael had significant reactions to the deaths of Moshe and Aharon. By contrast, we responded to the loss of Miriam in a much quieter manner. However, only a few days after she passed away we realized that it was only in her merit that we received the most critical component of life—water. Miriam was sorely underappreciated during her life. After she left this world we recognized how vital she was to the community.
During his lifetime, Jews in the major centers of Torah in North America did not recognize and appreciate the unassuming Rav Nota Greenblatt, who functioned to a great extent under the radar (except to those who needed him the most). Hopefully, now that he is no longer with us, we all recognize the great legacy he has bequeathed to Am Yisrael. When we recount the story of the renaissance of Torah Judaism in North America over the past 70 years, Rav Nota’s name, learning and activities must be at the forefront of such discussion.
Yehi zichro baruch, may his memory be a blessing. Zechuto yagen alenu, may his merit protect us, especially those who follow in his footsteps.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.