Why did close to a million people go to this rabbi’s funeral?
Imagine discovering at the earliest age a passion for an endeavor for which you have an abundance of natural talent and skill. Add to that the head start of growing up surrounded by the giants in your chosen field, who closely mentor your progress. For decades, thousands flock to your home seeking sagely advice, and you produce dozens of scholarly volumes on the entire breadth and depth of your chosen field.
Add to that a single-minded focus and unwavering devotion to the goal – day after day, year after year – for 94 years.
That was the life of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – the undisputed Prince of Torah (Sar HaTorah) – who was buried March 20, 2022 in the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, as hundreds of thousands converged to pay their last respects.
Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky was born in 1928 in Pinsk, now Belarus. His father, Rabbi Yaakov Y. Kanievsky, was the widely revered Steipler Ga’on. When Chaim was six, the Kanievsky family moved to Israel. On the sea voyage, Chaim sat day after day with his father, absorbed in Torah study. As they neared the shores of the Holy Land, they were about to complete study of Exodus, when suddenly his father kissed the book and closed it. “Let’s wait until we arrive,” he explained, “so we can celebrate in the Holy Land.”
This gave young Chaim not only an appreciation for the preciousness of Torah study, but also love for the land of Israel. Since then, he never departed the borders of Israel, and became a lifetime advocate for aliyah, encouraging people to move to Israel.
Rav Chaim’s childhood home was the center of the Torah world, with people from around the world gathering there to confer with some of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century. Besides his revered father, Rav Chaim’s uncle was Rabbi Avraham Y. Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), the premier Torah leader during the critical years of Israeli independence. The Chazon Ish, himself childless, showered Rav Chaim with constant tutelage and individual attention, grooming him in the art of Torah scholarship.
Rav Chaim, a child prodigy with a photographic memory, elucidated complex talmudic teachings at a young age. As a boy, he studied at Yeshiva Tiferes Tzion in Bnei Brak, amusing himself during recess breaks – not with a ball or board game – but by counting the number of times
various sages are quoted in the Talmud. For his bar mitzvah, he completed the Babylonian Talmud (Shas), a feat that many do not manage to achieve in a lifetime. Rav Chaim married Batsheva, the daughter of Judaism’s leading legal decisor, Rabbi Yosef S. Elyashiv (and granddaughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the beloved Tzaddik of Jerusalem). Rav Chaim’s illustrious lineage was unmatched, although that alone is insufficient to ensure success. Metaphorically, “nine zeros is not a billion” unless an actual number is added in front. So too, Rav Chaim was surrounded by Judaism’s leading sages, but what he added at the beginning made it all count.
Rav Chaim was a private citizen, leading no synagogue or yeshiva, and with no official teaching or rabbinic position. For years, he occupied a nondescript seat in Kollel Chazon Ish, conducting uninterrupted in-depth research and writing. Once, as a young man, he considered taking a paid position, but his father said: “Your contribution is to sit and learn. Period.” With commitment and diligence, Rav Chaim never wavered from that advice, becoming this generation’s paradigm of nonstop Torah study.
Inside Rav Chaim’s modest home on Rashbam Street, every room and hallway were lined with bookshelves, crammed with thousands of Torah books. On Shabbat, Rav Chaim would play a game with his children. One of them would name a book title, and Rav Chaim would entertain the children by immediately telling them its precise location among the volumes filling every inch of wall space.
Rav Chaim maintained a breathtaking schedule, waking at 2am for a rigorous 20-hour-a-day study of the entire biblical and rabbinic corpus including Tanach, Mishnah, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, Midrashim, Zohar, and all the primary works of Jewish law: Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and Mishnah Berurah.
Rav Chaim toiled day and night, saying that the mental energy expended on Torah study is more physically taxing than digging ditches or laying bricks. Few people manage to study so many intricate works in a lifetime. Rav Chaim completed them all – every single year.
The Kanievsky’s had a small apartment, and the young children slept in a room filled to the brim with beds. When a wealthy visitor once offered to buy them a spacious house, they declined, explaining that it encourages people to see that economic hardship does not preclude devotion to Torah study.
Rav Chaim learned before dawn with a study partner and they wanted to be able to awaken and study right away. Despite the already over-crowded conditions, a spot was found for the study partner to sleep in the Kanievsky’s apartment on a regular basis.
Rav Chaim published dozens of volumes that are modern classics, including Derech Emunah, Derech Chochma, Shoneh Halachos, and Ta’ama D’kra. With unparalleled breadth of knowledge, Rav Chaim was uniquely qualified in obscure topics of Jewish law, such as lunar cycles, and agricultural laws in Israel. In his lectures, Rav Kanievsky delivered groundbreaking
commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, which are the basis of a book by his son-in-law Rabbi Zelig Leib Braverman.
Additionally, Rav Chaim authored tens of thousands of rabbinic responsa on nearly every conceivable aspect of Torah. Each week he would sequester himself in a room with stacks of hundreds of letters, and patiently responded to every single one. Due to the sheer volume and to maximize his time, Rav Chaim’s responses were record-breakingly brief – typically a single line, and were often limited to one word in microscopic letters, occasionally adding a reference to the Jewish codes.
Rav Chaim made an art out of brevity. When delivering words of encouragement, to save precious seconds, he invented the word “Boo-ha,” an acronym for “blessings and success.”
Servant of the People
As the world’s most learned sage, Rav Chaim had insights into every possible dilemma – personal, communal, or global. Despite his reluctance to take a position of public leadership, tens of thousands of people from around the world – politicians, businesspeople, educators, and foreign dignitaries – flocked to Rav Chaim’s modest home on Rashbam Street.
At appointed times each day, the steep staircase outside Rav Chaim’s home would be lined with visitors waiting to enter, with lines often snaking around his house. Thousands would enter his inner chamber for blessings, inspiration, and sage advice from this humble human being, endowed with Divine guidance. Preferential treatment was given to little boys celebrating their third birthday, the day of their upsherin (first haircut), as Rav Chaim recognized the challenge of asking young children to wait in line.
For most of Rav Chaim’s life, he left decisions on communal matters to others. A few years ago, when I went to consult with Rav Chaim regarding a project of communal concern, he listened to my question and then, characteristically, sent me to consult with his Bnei Brak colleague, Rabbi A.Y.L. Shteinman. Rav Chaim often expressed tremendous gratitude to Rabbi Shteinman for shouldering that burden of responsibility, enabling Rav Chaim to continue his studies uninterrupted.
Wealth Is Not Limited to Money
Rav Chaim was renowned for being honored multiple times – every day – as sandek, holding the baby at a bris milah. Serving as sandek is considered a merit for becoming wealthy, and someone once asked Rav Chaim, “If you serve so often as sandek, why are you not wealthy?” He replied that “wealth” is not limited to money, and quoted his father that wealth is attained by publishing Torah commentaries. Rav Chaim added his own opinion that grandchildren are a source of tremendous wealth.
Rav Chaim’s time was highly structured, and keeping to such a rigorous schedule comes with intendant risks, particularly regarding one’s private life. Rebbetzin Kanievsky had every right to voice opposition to this hyper-focus on Torah study, which ostensibly came at her expense. Yet, she was his biggest supporter. Someone once made Rav Chaim a generous offer, which involved
him spending two minutes not related to Torah study or community matters. Rav Chaim presented the proposal to his wife, who nixed the idea, saying that two additional minutes of Torah study were worth more to her than anything else.
Fittingly, Rav Chaim passed away on Shushan Purim, a day when Haman – descendant of the biblical Amalek – fought to annihilate the Jewish people. Amalek represents ideologies antithetical to Torah; the best weapon we have against that is the study and practice of Torah. For 94 years, Rav Chaim Kanievsky fulfilled that mandate to the utmost.
Rav Chaim’s greatness, accomplishments, and contributions to the Jewish Nation could fill volumes. However, as his sudden passing occurred just a couple of days before our deadline, we were, unfortunately, unable to put together a proper tribute to this Torah giant in the current issue of Community. We will, please Gd, include a more extensive tribute in the next issue. We join the family, rabbis, and all world Jewry in mourning this great loss.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons is the co-founder of Aish.com, and co-author of “48 Ways to Wisdom” (ArtScroll). He is also the Founder and Director of Aish.com’s advanced learning site.
Reprinted with permission from Aish.com.