Hagaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky ZT”L
March 9, 2023
A Conversation with Rabbi Menachem Savitz
Gaining access to a gadol hador is not a simple matter, but having a personal relationship with a gadol is a true rarity. One needs foresight to discern who Klal Yisrael will accept as their manhig. Siyata d’Shmaya as well as a fair amount of courage are also necessary to actually build a real relationship with a gadol b’Yisrael.
Rabbi Menachem Savitz, menahel of Yeshivas Mekor Chaim, has accomplished just that. Having learned in Yeshivas Ponevezh as a bachur some 30 years ago, Rabbi Savitz has tallied up a long list of gedolim with whom he had a personal kesher, including Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz zt”l and Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l. He is also close to many leading roshei yeshivos in America including Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Yeruchem Olshin.
As Klal Yisrael marks a year since the shocking and colossal loss of the Sar HaTorah, the Voice reached out to Rabbi Savitz to share some memories. Our engaging conversation was sprinkled with personal anecdotes as well as stories that he personally verified.
Elul zman with R’ Chaim
“I heard a lot about Rav Chaim Kanievsky while learning in Ponevezh in the early 1990s,” Rabbi Savitz begins. “I was told that the Steipler Gaon had a son who knew kol haTorah kulah and that he learned first seder in Kollel Chazon Ish.”
Intrigued, Rabbi Savitz suggested to his chavrusa that they learn first seder in that kollel for an Elul zman, so they could see the gaon up close. The sight that met them there was astounding. They saw R’ Chaim sitting by himself at a back table, writing for hours on end. Often, he would not rise from his seat to get a sefer for over an hour while he continued to write from memory nonstop.
R’ Chaim would continue this way the entire morning, until 10 minutes before Minchah, when he would close his sefarim and move back his chair. That slight movement meant something important—it was his signal that he was available for questions.
But not many people took advantage of it at that time; on most days, no one went over. Rabbi Savitz, on the other hand, was there for a reason, and he grabbed the opportunity as often as he could. He would prepare questions in the sugya, in Halachah, sometimes even on hashkafah, and discuss them with R’ Chaim. R’ Chaim did not speak much even then, but it was possible to have a dialogue with him in those days.
It wasn’t long before R’ Chaim recognized Rabbi Savitz and took a liking to him.
“Characteristically, he never asked me for my name, but he knew me by face,” Rabbi Savitz shares.
Once the gadol got to know him, Rabbi Savitz was given access to him at other times as well. He often joined R’ Chaim for Havdalah, during which he was privy to see many interesting minhagim (see sidebar).
“About fifteen years ago, I came to him after not being there for over four years. Hundreds of people walked through his door daily at that time, and I asked him if he remembered me. R’ Chaim said nothing. He simply stood up and went to the sefarim shrank, returning with the set of sefarim I was zocheh to write. ‘Ich gedenk eich—Do I remember you?’ he exclaimed. ‘Of course!’ My name was of little importance, but once there was a Torah connection, he had instant recall (see picture of R’ Chaim holding the sefarim).
A bachur managed to get a prized 20-minute daily chavrusashaft with R’ Chaim. When he got engaged a few months later, he timidly invited his esteemed chavrusa to the vort, unsure if the gadol would have time to come. “Of course I’ll come,” said R’ Chaim. “But first tell me your name. How will it look if I come to the vort and don’t even know your name?”
Torah comes first
“I once passed by 23 Rashbam and saw R’ Chaim sitting on top of those famous steps with his shtender,” relates Rabbi Savitz. “I figured I would go up to ask him a question. But when I got to the top of the staircase, I realized that there was actually a long line of people waiting inside the house to speak to him.
“R’ Chaim looked up and saw me. ‘Nu, vus zugstu—What do you want?’
“I motioned to the queue, pointing out that they had all come before me.
“‘Nu-nu. They came for brachos and advice; you came to talk in learning. Your Torah comes first!’
“When I asked R’ Chaim what I should tell everyone in the line, he responded, ‘Tagid lahem shehaRav amar—Tell them the Rav said!’”
R’ Chaim’s gadlus baTorah was of worldwide acclaim, but seeing it firsthand made an indelible impression on Rabbi Savitz. The following story took place many years ago, when the true extent of R’ Chaim’s prowess was not yet well-known, and it left Rabbi Savitz in awe.
Someone approached R’ Chaim for a mekor for something. R’ Chaim sat back for a minute and said, “Nishtu in Bavli—It’s not in Bavli.” He was quiet for another moment before asserting that it’s not in Yerushalmi either, nor in Sifra, Sifri, Mechilta, or Tosefta. “Es iz nishtu—It’s not there!”
One yungerman secured himself an hour slot with R’ Chaim every Friday night, on three conditions: the yungerman would prepare for at least two or three hours before each Shabbos; they would discuss nothing but the sugya they were learning, and the yungerman would not miss even one week. The yungerman would enter at the designated time, sit down, and start learning. When the hour was up, he would rise from his seat and walk out.
One Friday night, this yungerman happened to still be in the room after he finished learning when the next chavrusa walked in.
“Gut Shabbos,” R’ Chaim greeted the second yungerman.
An uncomfortable feeling crept through him. I’m learning with the Rav for several weeks already, and not once did he greet me. Why am I different?
He decided to wait out the hour to see what would happen when the two finished their seder. Sure enough, when the seder was over and the second chavrusa got up to leave, R’ Chaim wished him gut Shabbos again.
The first yungerman was taken aback, but he figured that the other yungerman must have a special kesher with R’ Chaim.
The next week, he waited in vain for his gut Shabbos. And just like the week before, the second chavrusa did get the gut Shabbos greeting. Perplexed, the yungerman stayed until that chavrusa left and the next one arrived. He was also greeted with a gut Shabbos.
Now the first yungerman was baffled, not to mention a little hurt. Is there something wrong with me? he wondered.
He asked the Rebbetzin for an explanation, but she too was at a loss.
He tried putting the story out of his mind and continued coming week after greeting-less week. A few months went by, and the residents of the building he lived in managed to put away enough funds to buy a generator for Shabbos, so as not to use electricity operated by non-frum Yidden, as per the psak of the Chazon Ish.
That Shabbos was the first time R’ Chaim greeted him, “Gut Shabbos.”
Matter of interest
R’ Chaim was once scheduled to be sandak at a bris, and a well-to-do individual was the designated driver. The man arrived in a pristine new car and helped R’ Chaim into his seat. When the driver got back into the car to start the trip, however, the car died. He tried the ignition a few times, but to his consternation, the engine refused to ignite.
Feeling awful, he apologized to R’ Chaim and helped him out of the car, on the lookout for a taxi to take the Rav to the bris. He flagged down a cab and went to his car to get his belongings. Once inside, he decided to try the engine one more time. He put the key in and turned it, and lo and behold, the car began running perfectly.
He leaped out of his seat and ran to the taxi, inviting R’ Chaim back in. He paid the taxi driver a few shekels, mumbling an apology to him as he helped R’ Chaim back into his car.
The man got back in and turned the key, but the engine would not start. He turned to R’ Chaim; the question did not need articulation. What was going on?
R’ Chaim asked him where he had gotten the car from, and before long, the mystery was solved. The man worked in a bank and had received the car as a bonus for helping them close a particular deal—a deal that R’ Chaim considered to be ribbis. The car, therefore, was payment for a dvar issur. And hashgachah would not allow R’ Chaim to benefit from a dvar issur.
All one’s needs fulfilled
Rabbi Savitz has many more stories to share, but there is one that is his favorite. It is related to the famous story of the grasshopper that came to R’ Chaim’s window as he learned the halachos of chagavim, and Rabbi Savitz shares a fascinating add-on.
“I used to speak to Rav Chaim Kreiswirth when he came to America. One time, he told me that he was in Yerushalayim when the story became known, and he decided to make the trip to Bnei Brak to verify the story. R’ Chaim uncharacteristically looked him in the eye and said, ‘I can understand that an ordinary person is amazed at this story. But you? Antverpiner Rav, did you not know that if you want to learn in earnest, Hashem sends you all your needs?’”
R’ Chaim Kanievsky’s life was one of incredible dveikus to Torah. Just as incredible was the siyata d’Shmaya that enveloped his very essence—the semi-open miracles, those eyes that saw what no one else did, the brachos that affected people in the most dire straits… But the way R’ Chaim saw it, it was really quite simple. If you really, really want to learn and do what’s right, Hashem will be there holding your hand, assisting you in reaching your goal.
R’ Chaim’s hanhagos and directives
R’ Chaim would sit down to melaveh malkah immediately after Havdalah. He encouraged his grandchildren to drink from the kos, saying that it is a segulah for chochmah.
Contrary to popular belief that eating the end of a challah is kasheh l’shikchah, causes forgetfulness, R’ Chaim used to eat it. When Rabbi Savitz asked him about it, he responded, “My father used to eat it, and I like it.”
Rabbi Savitz shares another anecdote:
“I once planned on attending a chasunah in Yerushalayim and asked R’ Chaim after Minchah if I should take my tefillin with me. R’ Chaim responded with a forceful ‘Yes.’ In fact, in Mishneh Halachos, R’ Chaim writes that one should not leave town without his tefillin.
“‘But I have hundreds of people that would lend me their pair in case I have to stay overnight in Yerushalayim,’ I tried reasoning.
“‘And what if you get stuck on the road? Do you have hundreds of people on Kvish Echad (Route 1) that can lend you tefillin?’ R’ Chaim replied with a smile.
“Following R’ Chaim’s directive, I took my tefillin along to Yerushalayim. A few hours after our conversation, I entered the hall holding the pair under my arm. The chosson was R’ Chaim’s nephew, and I met him as soon as I walked into the room. His face lit up when he saw me.
“‘Du folgst—You listen!’ he quipped” (see picture).
Yet another interaction:
“Some thirty years ago, I asked R’ Chaim about the brachah of Shechalak M’chachmaso L’irei’av.
“‘In truth, there hasn’t been any one to make a brachah on for many years, according to the greatness in Torah Chazal had in mind when instituting the brachah,” said R’ Chaim. “But in every generation there is one gadol hador who has special siyata d’Shmaya, and one can make a brachah upon seeing him.’
“‘Who is it in this dor?’ I asked, and he said it was Rav Shach.
“Fifteen years later, I came back. Rav Shach was no longer alive, so I asked R’ Chaim whom I could make the brachah on now.
“‘Di shver, Rav Elyashiv.’
“Three years ago, I went back to Eretz Yisrael for a visit. I came into R’ Chaim’s house and said, ‘Thirty years ago, the Rav said I can make the brachah on Rav Shach. Fifteen years ago, it was Rav Elyashiv. Now, I’m not asking anymore who it is!’
“I proceeded to make the brachah out loud, and the assembled responded with a resounding amen!”