Reb Chaim: Remembering the Prince of Torah

Photo: Aharon Krohn/Flash90

 

Many years ago, I had the privilege of sharing a seudah shelishis tête-à-tête with Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broide, zt”l, rosh yeshivah of the renowned Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. In the course of our conversation, he said to me (to the best of my recollection and in rough translation), “Today, people give the most respect and honor to individuals like Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, about whom they can relate wonders (‘mofsim’). In our day, the person we respected the most was the Alter of Slabodka.1 You could not relate a single wonder the Alter had ever performed, but he was a ‘pikei’ach,’ the wisest person we had ever met.”

Rav Simcha Zissel’s message was a classic Litvish perspective:2 We don’t hold rabbis in great esteem on account of the reputed wonders they may have performed—even if we don’t doubt the possibility that they performed such wonders. We hold rabbis in great esteem on account of their greatness in Torah and their righteousness.

Thus, to appreciate the greatness of Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, affectionately known simply as Reb Chaim, it behooves us not to focus on the wonders attributed to him, but rather on the extraordinary breadth and depth of his Torah knowledge and wisdom, and on the impact his righteousness had on Am Yisrael.

Reb Chaim’s greatness in Torah is beyond comprehension. His daily quotas included the study of Tanach, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mechilta, Toras Kohanim, Sifri, Midrash, Zohar, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah and more—and he would finish many of these works annually!3

Perhaps most important for our nation’s growth in talmud Torah, Reb Chaim’s shiurim on Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled into a commentary called simply Be’ur, helped open a world of learning that was essentially closed to all but the most eminent scholars.4 It is often expedient, even necessary, to emend the text of the Yerushalmi.5 Reb Chaim most often adopts the emendations of the Vilna Gaon, but he frequently cites other variants and will not infrequently suggest his own emendations. Throughout the volumes already published, he provides a clear, simple and elegant commentary that unlocks even the most enigmatic discussions. The genius of the Be’ur is in doing for the Yerushalmi what the Kehati does for the Mishnah—granting access to anyone able to read simple Hebrew!6

Reb Chaim’s sefarim cover perhaps the broadest range of topics in Torah ever addressed by a single author. From his magnum opus, the Derech Emunah, a Mishnah Berurah on the laws emerging from Seder Zera’im, to his Kuntres Ish Iter on the laws of lefties;7 from commentaries in various styles on Masechtos Ketanos8 to his elegant synopsis of the Mishnah Berurah, incorporating the opinion of the Shoneh Halachos by his uncle the Chazon Ish, zt”l; from his musar sefer Orchos Yosher to his Yishuv Hada’as, a work that attempts to explain what the Maharsha9 meant every time he concludes a question with the comment yeish l’yasheiv (“it [the question] needs to be resolved”); and from the arcane laws of the kashrus of locusts to the equally, if not more, arcane laws of eglah arufah (the calf killed when a murder victim is found and the murderer’s identity is not known).

But despite his vast array of published works, much of Reb Chaim’s “Torah” is not known to us. Reb Chaim shied away from delivering lectures. He lectured twice a year, on the yahrtzeit of his uncle, the Chazon Ish, and on the yahrtzeit of his father, the Steipler, zt”l. These lectures were extraordinarily brief. Yet Reb Chaim was, in a unique way, one of the greatest disseminators of Torah in our time. For years, he would patiently respond—usually in a word, or at most a few words—to any question posed to him by people who encountered him, as well as to anyone who wrote him a letter or postcard. Dozens of sefarim, pamphlets and “parashah sheets” have been published by the individuals who received these “one-worders” (often a simple “yes,” “no” or “maybe”) or, at most, “one-liners.” This was an exalted form of chesed—responding to people whom other rabbis might have found annoying and exasperating. Simply because they asked.10

In one sefer, a questioner wanted to know if the principle of arvus11 applies to Tefillas Haderech (the Prayer for Travelers) so that if one has already said the tefillah, may he say it to exempt someone else? To which Reb Chaim answered only, “yitachein” (it’s possible).12 Indeed, it is remarkable that Reb Chaim had the patience to answer this question and hundreds, even thousands, like it. Some questions pertained to topics in Tanach, such as one writer13 who asked Reb Chaim how Mordechai’s informing on Bigsan and Seresh was justified, when their plot would have resulted in freeing Esther from Achashverosh. To which Reb Chaim responded, “You think Bigsan and Seresh were complete tzaddikim?!” (Reb Chaim seems to be implying that Mordechai knew very well what he was doing.)

Reb Chaim’s sefarim cover perhaps the broadest range of topics in Torah ever addressed by a single author.

Reb Chaim’s short answers do not relate to critical issues, to matters concerning “life and death.” Reb Chaim was well aware of the impropriety of giving one-word answers to major questions. Nevertheless, there are myriad examples in which these very short answers have significant ramifications. For example, regarding the halachah of a bosis l’davar ha’assur (a surface upon which a muktzah item was deliberately placed before Shabbos, which becomes a base for a forbidden item and thus may not be moved on Shabbos), Reb Chaim was asked the following: one deliberately placed a muktzeh item on a table before Shabbos, but it turned out that it was the wrong table; he had intended to place the item on another table. Is the prime consideration the deliberate placement, and therefore the table may not be moved, or, since it was the wrong table, is it as if he forgot the item there and therefore he may move the table on Shabbos? Reb Chaim’s one-word responsum was: “forgot.”14 In another case, quoted in the same sefer, Reb Chaim was asked: if someone has several hours to learn over the course of a day, is it preferable for him to devote the time to Gemara or to halachah? Reb Chaim responded: “k’retzono” [as he pleases].15

Reb Chaim’s vast knowledge allowed him to write remarkable sefarim, like Kiryas Melech in which he finds sources for the Rambam’s rulings in places and works in which many great scholars would not think to look. In his sefer L’Mechaseh Atik, he follows a similar path throughout Tanach, such as finding a source16 substantiating that the Tower of Bavel was seventy amos high, or that Delilah was the mother of Michah who erected a temple to an idol toward the end of Sefer Shoftim.17

But there were some very significant and noteworthy aspects to Reb Chaim, traits which—unlike his extraordinary intellect—we can try to emulate, albeit on a different level.

Reb Chaim was known for being disconnected from this world. When he would finish a meal, he would send one of his grandchildren to ask the Rebbetzin what he had eaten so he would know what berachah acharonah to make. He was once asked what the berachah is on schnitzel, to which he responded that he does not know what schnitzel is. He was unfamiliar with the streets of his hometown of Bnei Brak; he only knew the way to Kollel Chazon Ish.18

At the same time, he was also known for his extraordinary concern for others. In earlier years, Reb Chaim’s house was not always open all day. He used to go to his son-in-law’s house when he wished to learn undisturbed, and he had a key to let himself in. It happened once that Reb Chaim arrived at his son-in-law’s house without the key. Reb Chaim knocked at the door for a long time, but in vain, as the family had left to Yerushalayim for Shabbos. When he next saw his son-in-law, Reb Chaim said that he learned from this episode what people who come to see him must feel when the door is locked. From then on, Reb Chaim’s door was never locked.19

For many years, Reb Chaim and the Rebbetzin would spend a few days every summer in Tzfat. One day, someone came to Reb Chaim and told him that he had asked Rav Shach, zt”l, why he never took a trip to rest up when the yeshivah had a bein hazemanim break. Rav Shach responded that many people come to him with their sorrows. Some, he said, he could help. But in the vast majority of cases, there was no assistance he could render. Nevertheless, said Rav Shach, the fact that they were able to come and unburden their hearts to him in itself alleviated their pain and consoled them to some extent. Were he to leave home, these people would remain uncomforted and distressed. When Reb Chaim heard the story, he decided that he would no longer take trips to Tzfat.20

Reb Chaim davening in his home in Bnei Brak, 2019. Photo: Aharon Krohn/Flash 90

 

Reb Chaim’s humility was also well known. He always sat in an unobtrusive spot in shul, far from the mizrach (eastern) wall, where the prominent shul members normally sit. About ten years ago, when it became difficult for him to walk, a bridge was built for him from his home to the shul and his seat was moved close to the entrance on the mizrach wall. He davened there one time, then turned to his son and asked, “What have you done to me? I have never sat on the mizrach!” He went back to his prior seat, and only at the very end of his life when he was extremely weak did he relent to sit on that seat near the bridge. One of his students once brought a padded chair with armrests for Reb Chaim to use in shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He refused to sit on it.21

There was a certain orphan who spent much time in Reb Chaim’s house. When the young boy was there for Shabbos, Reb Chaim would direct the person slicing the challah to give the boy his portion before all the others present. When the Rebbetzin would come in with plates of cholent, the boy would receive a plate toward the end with others his age. When he would notice this, Reb Chaim (who would, of course, be served first) would turn to the orphan and say, “It seems they forgot you.” Reb Chaim would take a bite of his own cholent, and put the rest on the boy’s plate, joking that this was shirayim (the food Chassidim eat at a tisch after the Rebbe has taken a nibble from the platter). At the end of the meal, Reb Chaim would give the boy a sweet yasher koach, as if by accepting the “shirayim” he had done Reb Chaim a great favor.22

Anyone perusing social media shortly after Reb Chaim’s petirah could see that it wasn’t only the Chareidim among whom Reb Chaim lived who experienced extraordinary grief, but religious Jews of all stripes and non-religious Jews as well. A fourth-generation secular writer, Professor Yuval Elbashan, an Israeli author, community lawyer, academic and social activist, was awed by the simplicity of Reb Chaim’s lifestyle and by his embrace of droves of embittered and broken people, who emerged from his presence buoyed by the emunah Reb Chaim instilled in them.23 Arnon Itiel, a secular Jewish author, broadcaster and columnist, wrote:

I am a Jew who is not concerned with keeping the mitzvos. But I completely and profoundly believe that the thing that has sustained us is the Torah given to us. I was pleased that the Dan metropolitan area came to a standstill for Rabbi Kanievsky’s levayah—all for the honor of the Torah.24

Reb Chaim had many traits that elicited this level of love and respect. Doubtless, his primary trait was his extraordinary anavah (humility). As mentioned, he had absolutely no airs and was oblivious to any honor. Reb Chaim wrote:

. . . All doubts and confusion in matters of emunah (belief) only exist by haughty individuals (ba’alei ga’avah). One who is truly humble has neither doubt nor confusion. Indeed, any incidence of strife in a household, a lack of shalom bayis (which is very prevalent in our day), is almost always on account of ga’avah [arrogance, pride and haughtiness]. Were each person to seize the trait of anavah and not care for his honor and ga’avah, most disputes would end peacefully. Check this out and you will find that true anavah is the surefire cure for most of our contemporary problems.25

But it was also his pashtus, the sincere and absolute simplicity that is the hallmark of many gedolei Yisrael. Asaf Lieberman, an Israeli broadcaster (who worked on a film about Reb Chaim that was broadcast on his program Zman Emet last year), wrote right after Reb Chaim’s petirah:26

I am a Chiloni [a secular Jew]. The word kadosh [holy], in all of its various permutations, does not speak to me. And yet, many matters concerning Rabbi Kanievsky become clear when one enters his house on Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak . . . . Rabbi Kanievsky’s house is mesmerizing.

There is nothing in it.

Meaning, there is nothing in it from a materialist perspective. In the small bedroom there are two old beds and a cupboard. In the central room, a table and books. There is also a tiny kitchen. And that’s it.

The rabbi’s entire life can be summed up as sleeping, learning Torah, and nutrition.

In all my visits there, as a skeptical journalist, I looked for the catch. Where are the rabbi and the members of his household hiding the lavishness? But the thing is, there is no lavishness.

Now, what is kedushah [holiness]?

As I mentioned, I am a Chiloni who does not connect with discussions of holiness. It is much easier for me to use the word naki [clean].27 From a spiritual perspective, the rabbi was completely clean. There was no concern for unimportant matters, there were no pointless thoughts, no gossip, no scheming, no pettiness.

And all the masses of people who waited by his door, seeking to get several minutes with the rabbi, they too wanted to receive something of this cleanliness. From their perspective, a person of such cleanliness could also cleanse some of the background noise and would have the insight to see on them that which they—people who aren’t clean (which is all of us)—are not capable of seeing.

. . . I cannot help but be astonished by the character of this individual—and no less by the masses for whom he was the subject of their admiration.

Think about it: Who is the person for whom you would wait hours for a few minutes with him? For which person whom you never met would you abandon everything so as to participate in his funeral?

The fact that Rabbi Kanievsky was a role model for Jews of all stripes is something worth pondering. Another Chiloni, Gil Plotkin, wrote in a similar vein:28

Rabbi Kanievsky did not conquer space like Elon Musk; he did not achieve record-breaking wealth like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; he did not receive thousands of “likes” on sharp tweets, nor did he seek publicity in the media or on a reality show. He learned Torah, received people in his modest house in Bnei Brak, and bestowed blessings on “simple people.”

Long lines frequently snaked out his door. People wanted his blessing. They wanted assurance when they faced difficult moments in their lives, and he gave it to them.

. . . In the later years, he had to save time while giving blessings to those who requested them so as to be able to also fulfill his “quotas” of daily Torah learning. So he abbreviated his blessings. “Berachah v’hatzlachah” (“Blessings and success”) became “buha”—because he wanted to be able to receive everyone.

Rabbi Kanievsky did not exploit his stature to acquire property and wealth. . . . To the casual capitalist observer, forgoing a materialistic life to learn Torah seems like an enigma, something difficult to believe. But Rabbi Kanievsky, beloved by Chareidi society, and a person who was also a symbol to many beyond that society, did precisely that with his modest way of life.

An article I saw the week after the petirah29 captured the remarkable diversity of Jews who were awed by Reb Chaim. The author notes the phenomenon of Jews who attend shul once a year; the Chazon Ish would call such a Jew a “Yom Kippur Yid” and would say that a Yom Kippur Yid is also a Jew. The author then notes the range of people who came to Reb Chaim’s levayah. One with a white kippah, another with a green hat and a third whose appearance clearly differed from those who made up the bulk of the crowd. In the twenty-first century, asserts the author, such Jews can be called Reb Chaim Kanievsky Yidden.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s house is mesmerizing. There is nothing in it.

He tells of a telephone conversation with a Jew confined in a remote prison far from the center of Israel. That prisoner related that when it became known on Friday that Reb Chaim had passed away, twenty prisoners told him they would keep Shabbos that week because Reb Chaim would very much want them to do so. Reb Chaim, who never read even a religious newspaper, who never involved himself in any commercial activity, and who didn’t know a thing about finance or fame was a beacon of light who gave myriad people a sense that we are watched from Heaven and that, as they pronounced loudly at the levayah, Hashem Hu haElokim!

Perhaps it was the infinite patience with which Reb Chaim received the masses and gave them chizuk, answered even their silliest and most annoying questions, and bestowed advice and blessings.30 Perhaps it was his concern for orphans, with whom he would spend whatever time was necessary.31 Perhaps it was simply the radiance of his Torah, which even those who never met him could sense from afar. Reb Chaim created Reb Chaim Yidden.

Just as we cannot hope to reach Reb Chaim’s heights in Torah, we cannot hope to reach the heights of his character. He personified V’hatznei’a leches im Elokecha, to walk in modesty before G-d,32 in its fullest sense. But we can strive to incorporate more pashtus, more anavah, more nosei b’ol im chaveiro (sharing the burden of our fellow). As the article concluded:

For even we of smaller stature, when we fill our personal cups so that they overflow a bit over their rims, we, too, can influence with our Torah and our emunah on a Reb Yankel Yid, on a Reb Dovid Yid—on our environs, on our friends, on our spouses and our children who surround us. All it requires is penimiyus (internal commitment and devotion). In truth. And in the holiness of the Torah.

Notes

1. Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, zt”l, founder of the famous Slabodka musar yeshivah, who later moved with a large part of the student body to found the equally famous Chevron Yeshiva, which until the 1929 massacre was located in Chevron.

2. Reminiscent of the Rambam’s statement concerning Moshe Rabbeinu (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 8:1).

3. Kovetz L’zichro shel Matan Hagrach Kanievsky, p. 7.

4. The mashgiach of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, Rabbi Dovid Kronglass, zt”l, writes in the introduction to his work, Divrei Dovid, that while in Shanghai with the rest of the Mirrer Yeshiva during World War II, he attempted to master the Yerushalmi on Zera’im. With impressive humility, he acknowledges that he could not conquer the intricacies of Maseches Kilayim. With Reb Chaim’s commentary, accompanied by his simple yet comprehensive drawings, this rare feat has become far more accessible.

5. There are essentially no commentaries by the Rishonim on Talmud Yerushalmi—and not by many Acharonim! Hence, unlike the Bavli, in which Rishonim like Rashi and Tosafos initially clarified and corrected the text of the Talmud, culminating in the later revisions of the Bach and the Rashash et al., it is still incumbent on contemporary learners of Yerushalmi to clarify the best variant of the text.

6. The next cycle of Daf Yomi Yerushalmi (a four-year-and-three-month cycle) begins Monday, 20 Marcheshvan 5783, November 14, 2022. I would like to suggest that it would be a wonderful ilui neshamah for Reb Chaim for individuals and groups to begin then, within the year of aveilus, to learn Yerushalmi with Reb Chaim’s Be’ur. (If I may be indulged a moment of shameless self-promotion, recordings of my shiurim on the entire Yerushalmi are available to download at yerushalmionline.org.)

7. As a lefty myself, this brief work is close to my heart. In it, Reb Chaim notes that he could find no source taking a position on how a lefty, who does nefilas apayim (putting the head down on the arm while saying Tachanun) during Shacharis on his left arm (the arm that does not have tefillin wrapped around it), should do nefilas apayim during Minchah. Should he do it on his left arm as he does during Shacharis, or should he do it on his right arm (now unencumbered with tefillin) as most of the people around him are doing? If Reb Chaim stated he could find no source taking a position, it is reasonably certain that no such ruling exists!

8. The minor tractates are normally printed at the end of Seder Nezikin in the Talmud. There are fourteen such tractates. Reb Chaim wrote commentaries on several of them. Some of the commentaries are like the Be’ur on the Yerushalmi, while others are far more in depth.

9. The great early-seventeenth-century commentary of Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles on Talmud Bavli.

10. Reb Chaim himself stated that he responded to these letters as a chesed (Kovetz, p. 8).

11. The obligation of every Jew to ensure that other Jews fulfill mitzvos, which allows one who has already recited most berachos to repeat them to help another Jew fulfill his obligation to say that berachah.

12. Siach HaTorah, vol. 1, p. 281.

13. Ibid., 40.

14. Gam Ani Odecha, p. 21.

15. Ibid., 41.

16. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 24.

17. Tosefta d’Targum (Reb Chaim notes that this is not in accordance with a midrash cited by Rashi to Sanhedrin 101b).

18. Kovetz, pp. 16–17, 36.

19. Ibid., 33.

20. Ibid., 39.

21. Ibid., 51–52. Reb Chaim said the chair was “too Rebbe-ish.”

22. Ibid., 11.

23. globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001406073.

24. israelhayom.co.il/opinions/article/9330700.

25. Orchos Yosher, Anavah.

26. bit.ly/3QxdstD; also at hidabroot.org/article/1166745.

27. It is unlikely that Mr. Lieberman is aware of the Sha’ar HaNekiyus in the Ramchal’s Mesillas Yesharim. But his attribution of the middah of nekiyus to Reb Chaim very much dovetails with the Ramchal’s definitions.

28. davar1.co.il/369353/.

29. “A Reb Chaim Yid,” by A. Chafetz in Kovetz Gilyonos L’Parashas Shemini, 5782.

30. I think it would be remiss not to mention Reb Chaim’s great-grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who had a similar effect on Jews of all backgrounds. While this is not the place to explore the connection, perhaps no small part of Reb Chaim’s effect was due to the influence of Reb Aryeh’s granddaughter, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, a”h.

31. Heard from my chavrusa, Reb Moshe Klein, whose acquaintance was constantly in Reb Chaim’s presence.

32. Michah 6:8.

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is a rav, rebbi and dayan in Monsey, New York and Passaic, New Jersey. Additionally, he is the mara d’asraof Congregation Anshei Palisades in Pomona, New York, and is currently working on a commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi that owes much to the commentary of Reb Chaim mentioned in this article. Rabbi Bechhofer is a frequent contributor to these pages.

 

More in this Section:

Chaim Shel Torah by Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky

Rav Chaim’s Legacy by Rabbi Moshe Hauer

 

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