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The Life of Rav Chaim Kanievsky

(Courtesy of Artscroll)

Excerpting: “Rav Chaim Kanievsky: The Biography,” by Naftali Weinberger. ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. 2023. Hardcover. 499 pages. ISBN-13:

Rav Chaim Kanievsky was the Sar HaTorah, master of every area of Torah knowledge and author of dozens of Torah works on topics ranging from the basic to the arcane. He was a fount of guidance, comfort and blessing to tens of thousands. His diligence in Torah was legendary, yet he opened his home and his heart to all who sought him.

But despite all the stories we have heard, there is so much more. And Rabbi Naftali Weinberger is the perfect person to give us the rest of the story.

Rabbi Weinberger had a uniquely close relationship with Rav Chaim Kanievsky and his family for nearly 30 years—so much so that Rav Chaim authorized him to write the bestselling biography “Rebbetzin Kanievsky.”

His unparalleled access to Rav Chaim and his family enabled him to produce a fascinating new biography of Rav Chaim, giving us an insider’s view of the Sar HaTorah’s remarkable life and achievements, including warm and personal stories heard directly from the family and rare photographs appearing in print for the very first time.

In these pages, we will come to know the Torah aristocracy that was Rav Chaim’s family—the Chazon Ish, the Steipler, Rav Elyashiv and others—from the family’s unique perspective. We will encounter the Torah giants and “simple” Jews who were part of Rav Chaim’s life, and see how he interacted with them.

The Prince of Torah gave our People so much in his lifetime, and through this extraordinary volume his memory and example will continue to inspire us. We will aspire to emulate his diligence and love for Torah, his shalom bayis, and the chinuch he instilled in his family. We will learn to care for and welcome every Jew. And we will see how a Torah giant who valued every moment of Torah study freely gave of his time for others.

The following are some stories from the new book.

Alarm Clock

Rav Chaim Yisrael Shapira, the son of the Lederman Shul’s rav, Rav Yehudah Shapira, related his own story about Rav Chaim’s encouragement of his learning when he was a youngster.

“In 1959, when I was twelve years old, I was Rav Chaim’s neighbor on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak. Every morning, at exactly 3:30, Rav Chaim would learn his portion of the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi chovos with four avreichim in the Lederman Shul. I was intrigued by the rapid pace of the learning as well as the yedios haTorah I would be able to obtain from such a seder and decided to try to join them.

“Alarm clocks were a rare commodity, and we didn’t have one in our house. I mentioned to Rav Chaim that I would not be able to wake up so early on my own; he said he would wake me if I wanted. When it came to Torah, nothing was beneath his dignity!

“Rav Chaim came up with an interesting method. I slept on the mirpesset (porch) of our home, which was near the ground floor. Rav Chaim gave me a long, thin rope. He instructed me to wrap one end around my hand and let the other dangle down to the ground floor. Every morning, at 3:15 sharp, Rav Chaim would tug on the rope once or twice and I would wake up. He did this for me—a youngster of twelve!—for more than a year!

“After waking me, Rav Chaim would head around the corner to the Volozhin Yeshivah on Rechov Nechemiah to wake another participant, his sixteen-year-old cousin Baruch Greineman, who had also worried that he wouldn’t be able to wake up on his own.

“About a year before I joined this study group as an active participant, the group learned with Rav Chaim some mornings in his house, rather than in the Lederman Shul. When we arrived, Rav Chaim would pick up his little daughter Leah [Koledetski], who slept in the hallway of the house, and carry her to his bed, where she would continue sleeping and we would learn in the hallway.”

Waiting for Him

Ariel Rosenstein* had unfortunately left the path of Torah and Yiddishkeit and moved out of his parents’ home. Five long years passed, and the Rosensteins came to Rav Chaim with a she’eilah.

“When our son moved out, he left his tefillin behind. They have not been used for five years. Should we donate them to a gemach which lends tefillin to people who need them? If Ariel ever comes back and requests his tefillin, we’ll be able to get them back from the gemach.”

Rav Chaim was not comfortable with this idea.

“It is important for your son to know that his tefillin are waiting for him at home,” he replied. “He should never get the feeling that his parents gave up on him. If someone wants to borrow the tefillin for an hour or so because for whatever reason he does not have a pair available that day, that is acceptable. But it is very important that the tefillin remain in your home and not at the gemach. That way, your son will know that when he decides to return to the path of Torah, his tefillin will be there, waiting for him.”

Rav Chaim then gave the Rosensteins a heartfelt berachah that their son merit returning with teshuvah sheleimah.

Rebbi for a Day

Rav Chaim never took a job as a rebbi in a yeshivah or as a rosh yeshivah. The closest he came to teaching a classroom of youngsters was when he was studying in the Lomza Yeshivah.

One day, a chavrusa of Rav Chaim, who taught in a local cheder in Petach Tikva, asked if he could substitute for a day. Rav Chaim agreed to help his friend and showed up to teach the class of fourth graders.

After Rav Chaim taught the boys a single Mishnah in Maseches Bava Metzia, a student raised his hand. Rav Chaim anticipated a question on the Mishnah.

“May I go to the bathroom?” the boy asked.

“Of course!” Rav Chaim enthusiastically responded, sensing a teaching moment. “When someone feels a need to go to the bathroom, there is an obligation to go right away because of the verse (Vayikra 11:43), “אַל־תְּשַׁקְּצוּ֙ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם— You shall not make yourselves abominable.’”1

A wave of understanding swept through the classroom as the other boys immediately sensed Rav Chaim’s inexperience. One by one they raised their hands.

“May I leave the room?”

“I need the bathroom!”

“May I be excused?”

Soon only one student remained in the room.

“Don’t you also need the bathroom?” Rav Chaim asked.

“Actually, I do,” the boy replied, “but I don’t want to leave the rebbi alone with no students.”

“I think you should go to the bathroom immediately,” Rav Chaim suggested. “Then we can both leave the classroom, and I can go back to the Lomza Yeshivah to continue my learning there!”

And that is exactly what he did!

His grandson, Rav Avraham Yeshayah Shteinman, who heard this anecdote from Rav Chaim several times, added, “Even though Sabba jokingly repeated this story, he always added that controlling a classroom is a skill he felt he did not possess; he was not a mechanech.”

Shabbos Meals

Every Shabbos morning for a period of more than twenty years, many people would follow Rav Chaim from the Lederman Shul upstairs to his apartment, bombarding him along the way with a barrage of questions, from personal she’eilos, to random questions in learning, to what can only be termed silly questions.

“When he got home,” related R’ Shayah Cohen, “he verified that Savta was ready for Kiddush. As he began pouring the wine into his kos, he was asked questions. On the way to wash his hands for HaMotzi, he was asked questions. Throughout the meal, he was asked questions. Sabba did not have a second for himself!

“This happened every Shabbos and Yom Tov. I don’t recall him saying even once, ‘Can I please get a break from this? I’ve been up since midnight, learning, and I’m very tired. Perhaps come back later after I eat my meal or rest a bit.’ No. He viewed all the questioners as presenting an opportunity to do chesed and help disseminate Torah. Sabba completely put aside his own comfort to benefit others.”

There were always many people who desired to eat the Shabbos meals with Rav Chaim. As a result, until the passing of the Rebbetzin, dozens of guests—most of whom were not invited—would join them for the day meal. Although Rav Chaim said privately that he was embarrassed to eat with so many people watching him, nevertheless, he allowed them to come and did not say anything.

“Abba never ran out of patience,” said R’ Shlomo, “and he answered every individual. It was truly incredible, reminiscent of the stories Chazal tell about Hillel.”

A Berachah From the Rosh Yeshivah

A few months before he became a chassan, Rav Chaim made use of a segulah that many other bachurim had used with much success. During his Purim seudah, Rav Reuven HaKohen Katz,2 rosh yeshivah of the Lomza Yeshivah, would confer heartfelt berachos on talmidim as well as others who lined up outside his home.

As instructed by his father, the Steipler, Rav Chaim (who was twenty-three at the time) and his chavrusa, Rav Dov Weintraub, both Lomza talmidim, went on Purim afternoon to receive a berachah from Rav Katz for each to soon find his zivug. That year, ten of the older bachurim became engaged after receiving a berachah from Rav Reuven.3 Rav Chaim and Rav Dov were among this group.

The 54 Bus

Often, parents who have several children simultaneously seeking zivugim would go to Rav Chaim to pour out their hearts. Rav Chaim would tell them what his father, the Steipler Gaon, used to say about the Dan 54 bus from Bnei Brak to Tel Aviv.

Riders of the Dan 54 bus would complain that due to delays, they often waited impatiently for up to fifty minutes—and then four buses would pull up simultaneously! “This is why it’s called the ‘54’ bus,” they would joke. “After 50 minutes of waiting, 4 buses arrive!”

The Steipler would tell those impatient parents, “True, you are waiting a long time for yeshuos, but it may be that when the right time arrives, four ‘buses’ will arrive simultaneously and all your children will become engaged in quick succession.”4

The Least Likely of All

This story, which the author heard directly from Rav Chaim, who heard it from his father, shows that Hashem can turn anyone’s situation around for the better, and therefore, no one should ever give up.

When the Steipler was a talmid at the Novardok Yeshivah in Europe, there was another talmid there named Aryeh, who came from a poor home and was very overweight due to a medical condition. Aryeh’s unwanted weight led to other medical issues, and he was bedridden for much of the day. His condition necessitated numerous doctor’s visits, and since his parents were impoverished, his fellow talmidim solicited funds for his needs. Even the Steipler, when was in Pinsk one Purim, spent several hours collecting for Aryeh.

During World War II, an overwhelming majority of Novardok talmidim were murdered by the Nazis. The Steipler, who had immigrated to Eretz Yisrael years before the war, assumed that Aryeh was among the kedoshim.

One day, following Minchah at the Lomza Yeshivah in Petach Tikva, Rav Chaim was conversing with a stranger. When Rav Chaim mentioned that he was Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky’s son, the stranger responded that he knew his father well from Novardok. The stranger was none other than Aryeh! During the war, he had been sent by the Russians to Siberia. Afterwards, he made his way to Eretz Yisrael, married, had several children, and was running a successful business.

Aryeh visited the Steipler Gaon a few weeks later. After he left, the Steipler told Rav Chaim, “Had you asked me who among the talmidei hayeshivah was likely to survive the war, Aryeh would have been the last name on my list. His survival is proof that the workings of Hashem’s Hashgachah are beyond our understanding. His ultimate success also shows that just because someone is not successful early in life does not mean he cannot succeed later.”

At His Level

A young boy was davening Shemoneh Esreh next to Rav Chaim. As he prayed, he shook his head from side to side rather than back and forth.

Rav Chaim noticed this and called the boy over. “You know,” he said, “if you shake your head back and forth, it’s like saying ‘yes’ to Hashem. But if you shake your head from side to side, it’s like saying ‘no’ to Hashem.”

Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Yitzchak Shaul, was present during this encounter. “Why didn’t you tell the boy that the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 48:5) writes that one should not shake his head from side to side, as it is a haughty way to pray to Hashem?”

Rav Chaim replied that one must talk to children at their level of understanding. He felt the answer he gave would be more easily understood by the child than quoting the Mishnah Berurah.

Who Is Greater?

The beloved Novardoker Maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky,5 once joked that he was greater than Rav Chaim.

“Last year,” he said, “the rav made his Erev Pesach siyum on kol haTorah kulah, and I was there. I wished him that he should merit finishing it again, and he wished me the same. And look whose berachah was fulfilled! Mine came true, as the rav finished Shas again, while the rav’s berachah remains unrealized, as I did not complete Shas!”

Rav Chaim appreciated the joke and smiled broadly. “But you know, Rav Yaakov,” he quipped, “you don’t become a talmid chacham from berachos. You become a talmid chacham from learning with hasmadah.”

The Bargain

Reuven* was in the United States, collecting money to marry off his daughter. He went to the home of a philanthropist who gave him a generous check. Before he left, the philanthropist told him that he was learning a difficult Tosafos in Zevachim on which he had several questions.

“I’ll give you $10,000 on the spot if you can answer my questions and explain the Tosafos to me,” offered the philanthropist. Reuven spent a while trying to answer the questions, but to no avail.

As he headed back to his lodgings, he met his friend Shimon,* who was also marrying off a child. Reuven told Shimon what had transpired at the philanthropist’s home and the questions he had on the Tosafos.

Shimon reviewed the Tosafos and spent several hours on the phone with his chavrusa in Israel until they had a clear understanding of it. He then went to the philanthropist’s home, and the scenario that had unfolded with Reuven repeated itself. When the philanthropist offered Shimon $10,000 to answer the same questions he had previously asked Reuven, the well-prepared Shimon explained the Tosafos flawlessly. The philanthropist promptly handed him a check for $10,000.

After Shimon returned to Israel, his conscience began to gnaw at him. Could it be that he had fooled the philanthropist? He visited Rav Chaim and told him the entire story. Rav Chaim assured him that he could cash the check and keep the money.

“Why would the man give you $10,000? Because you made a nice impression? He lacked understanding of the Tosafos and paid to understand it. In my opinion, the philanthropist got a bargain. To understand a Tosafos is worth much more than $10,000!”

Banking Terms

A fellow once came to Rav Chaim distressed over his financial situation. “Things are so bad,” he lamented, “יש לי מינוס בבנק שלי (I have a ‘minus’ [overdraft] in my bank account)!”

Sensing the man’s angst, Rav Chaim replied with his trademark humor, “If your bank has מינות (heresy), go to a bank without מינות (heresy).”

The man was both confused and amused. He began to explain to Rav Chaim that he meant מינוס (overdraft), not מינות (heresy). Rav Chaim nodded in understanding. By that time the man’s tension had been defused by the exchange and he happily walked away with a berachah for parnassah (livelihood).

As Simple As I Am

Several months after the Rebbetzin passed away, Rav Eliyahu Mann asked Rav Chaim to share some of her attributes. Rav Chaim replied, “The fact that she compromised her elevated stature and agreed to marry someone as simple as I am!”

Not to Offend

Three years and a day before Rav Chaim’s petirah, a long line snaked up the well-trodden steps of 23 Rechov Rashbam. A simple Jew entered the apartment with a plate of mishloach manos, consisting of several packages of loose wafers on a plate. The grandson who was helping Rav Chaim, R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, assumed that even if the wafers had a good hashgachah, Rav Chaim would not partake of them if they were no longer in sealed packages. Neither would the poor families in Bnei Brak, with whom the Kanievskys shared the majority of their mishloach manos.

Trying to be tactful, R’ Yaakov Yisrael thanked the man for his good intentions. “However,” he added, “there are so many gifts of food in my grandfather’s home; it would be better if you took yours back with you so it shouldn’t go to waste.”

Rav Chaim overheard this exchange and signaled to his grandson that he wished to speak to him privately. R’ Yaakov Yisrael asked everyone to kindly step aside, and when all visitors were out of earshot, Rav Chaim addressed him.

“If someone wants to give us mishloach manos, we are not doing the right thing by turning it down. I’m afraid the person will be offended. Please see if you can find him and ask him to return so we can accept his gift.”

R’ Yaakov Yisrael rushed downstairs and was able to locate the man. When he came back, Rav Chaim showered him with extra attention and berachos and accepted the mishloach manos with a big smile.

Gratitude Upon Gratitude

Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz was one of Rav Chaim’s early rebbeim in Eretz Yisrael. Following his rebbi’s petirah, Rav Chaim visited the Lefkowitz family for nichum aveilim.

He told them that many years earlier, Rav Michel Yehudah approached him (Rav Chaim had several thousand sefarim in his home) and asked to borrow the sefer Be’er Eisan on Maseches Makkos.

“My father was a G-d-fearing person,” Rav Michel Yehudah explained, “but a simple man, not a scholar or a person of note. Often, when I took walks with him, he would express his desire for me to become a talmid chacham, explaining that his lack of stature should have no bearing on my own growth in Torah. In fact, he would point to his friend Rav Chaim Rogavin, who had a shoe repair shop, and say, ‘You see that man? He is a shoemaker. He is just like me, a simple individual. And yet, his son, Rav Avraham Yitzchak, is a talmid chacham. You, too, even though your father is not a talmid chacham, can become one if you work hard and apply yourself to your learning.”

Rav Michel Yehudah continued. “Recently, I found out that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Rogavin, the son of that shoemaker, authored the sefer Be’er Eisan on Maseches Makkos. It is thanks to him and the sefer he published that I was inspired by my father to follow in his path.

“The sefer was only printed once, and it is not available for sale in stores. I heard that you own a copy of Be’er Eisan. As hakaras hatov to the author, I wish to borrow the sefer and study from it and quote from it in the shiur I give in yeshivah.”

Rav Chaim related that upon returning from Rav Michel Yehudah’s levayah, he recalled this story and felt gratitude to the author of Be’er Eisan for inspiring his rebbi. “Because he had a part in making my rebbi who he was, I felt a sense of hakaras hatov, so I sat down to learn from the sefer as well.”

Locked Out

Approximately thirty years before Rav Chaim passed away, he used to go to the Epstein home on Rechov Devorah HaNeviah on Friday afternoons in the summer to learn without being interrupted.

One Friday, while Rav Chaim was learning there without distraction, with his pile of sefarim and notebooks beside him, the Epsteins headed to Yerushalayim for Shabbos. For some reason, Rav Chaim stepped out of the apartment and the front door locked automatically behind him. Since he did not have a key, he was separated from the beloved notebooks which contained his many handwritten insights and he had no choice but to return home.

Sunday morning, when R’ Dovid Epstein got back to Bnei Brak, he hurried to Rav Chaim’s home to return the notebooks he had found in his apartment. Rav Chaim was delighted to have them back. He thanked his son-in-law, then told him he had reached a decision.

“While I appreciate that you let me learn in your apartment on Fridays, I will not be utilizing it anymore and will stay home all day every Friday,” he said.

Rav Chaim added that after some introspection, he concluded that because he left home to avoid the petitioners and “locked away” their access to him, Heaven punished him by causing him to get locked out of the Epstein home without access to his notebooks.

From that day onward, Rav Chaim did not go to any “hideouts” to learn Torah.6

1 See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, siman 92.

2 1880–1963. He was the author of the multi-volume Degel Reuven and Duda’ei Reuven.

3 See also Kol Mishalosecha by R’ Eliyahu Mann, p. 626.

4 Heard from his grandson, R’ Aryeh Koledetski.

5 1920–2014. R’ Galinsky knew the Steipler from Novardok. After surviving the Holocaust in Siberian exile, he moved to Israel and was close to the Chazon Ish. He was one of the most popular maggidim who traveled around Israel, uplifting and strengthening many, especially immigrants of Sephardic backgrounds.

6 Related by his son-in-law, R’ Dovid Epstein.

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