Prince of Torah: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky

Legendary Sage

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was an enormously influential modern sage known as the “Gadol ha Dor” – the great one of the generation. He led the Lithuanian branch of Orthodox Judaism, which is known for Torah scholarship and character refinement.

Chaim Kanievsky was born in Pinsk, Poland (now Belarus), in 1928. His father, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, was a revered scholar known as the Steipler Gaon. When young Chaim was six years old, the family moved to British-Mandate Palestine. Growing up in Bnei Brak, Chaim Kanievsky was raised among sages: his father the Steipler Gaon became a prominent Torah authority and leader in Israel, and Chaim’s uncle was the holy Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz). The Chazon Ish had no children of his own and Chaim Kanievsky became like a son to him.

The boy was a Torah prodigy with a photographic memory. He was a brilliant student from a prominent family, but genuinely humble and modest. For his bar mitzvah, he completed the entire Babylonian Talmud! Chaim Kanievsky was a rabbinical student when he was drafted into the newly formed Israel Defense Forces in 1948 and he served in the War of Independence. The young soldier was known for bringing a volume of Talmud to the battlefield so that he could keep studying. In 1951 Rabbi Kanievsky married Batsheva Elyashiv, the daughter of the prominent Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and they had eight children.

Rabbi Kanievsky was known for his astonishing regimen of Torah learning; he woke up at 2 am and studied continuously for as many as 17 hours a day! Because of his unparalleled level of scholarship and highly refined character traits, he became known as the Prince of Torah.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s written works cover a wide range of topics including obscure areas of Jewish law such as farming and Temple sacrifices. He shunned a public leadership role but wielded enormous influence and power from his small, book-crammed apartment in Bnei Brak. Even though he represented the Lithuanian stream of Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Kanievsky was revered across the religious world. His time was spent studying Torah, writing books, and replying to a constant stream of queries about every possible aspect of Jewish law. Every response was astonishingly brief, usually just one line, sometimes just one word, but filled with meaning. Rabbi Kanievsky held no formal paid position; his father told him that his contribution is to sit and learn, and that’s what he did.

Every year he hosted a festive meal on the night before Passover to celebrate completing his yearly Torah cycle: the entire Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, Midrash, Zohar, Tosefta and the writings of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria.) Every year!

While Rabbi Kanievsky was secluded with his books, his wife Batsheva welcomed hundreds of people into their small apartment every week to give advice and blessings. She was a true woman of valor. Their small apartment, filled with books and beds, was always open to anybody who needed help. The Rabbi and Batsheva ate all of their simple meals together throughout their sixty years of marriage. Rabbi Kanievsky’s beloved Rebbetzin died suddenly during the Sukkot holiday in 2011. Over 50,000 mourners attended her funeral. Her passing left a huge void in the Jewish world.

After Batsheva’s death, Rabbi Kanievsky founded Belev Echad (One Heart) an Israeli nonprofit that provides social services for sick children and adults. He received thousands of visitors a year who came to him for blessings, advice, legal rulings, or just because they wanted to be in the presence of a great sage.

In 2017, the Gadol HaDor (generation’s leader) Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman died, and Rabbi Kanievsky became the Gadol HaDor, the pre-eminent posek (decider of Jewish law) for hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world.

Rabbi Kanievsky contracted Covid early in the pandemic, and although he recovered from the virus, his health began to decline. Until the end of his long life, he  never left the Holy Land. Rabbi Kanievsky died right before Shabbat on March 18, 2022. His funeral was one of the biggest in Israeli history. It is estimated that 750,000 mourners thronged the streets of Bnei Brak to attend the great rabbi’s funeral. Religious and political leaders across the spectrum paid their respects to the tzaddik (saintly sage.)

May Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s memory always be for a blessing!

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