Harav Domeh l’Malach Hashem
March 24, 2022
An Orphaned Nation Bereft by the Loss of Its Crown Jewel Maran Sar HaTorah Hagaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky Zt”l
Speechless. The shocking tidings this past Friday morning caused young and old alike to freeze in disbelief. The person whose picture hangs in many of our homes for the children and adults to look up to, who had been part of our nation’s character for over half a century, answering questions, guiding, and bestowing brachos, was no longer with us.
Could it be true? Could the sun still shine without the light of R’ Chaim illuminating the world? Could we really greet Mashiach without him?
As reality set in, the joy that we all felt just hours earlier on the happiest day of the year was replaced with a scathing sense of loss and fear. R’ Chaim! We all felt a connection to this angel of a man whom many of us never even met. Somehow, the knowledge that in that humble house in Bnei Brak lived a Yid whose very existence protected us all gave us a cushion of comfort upon which we relied during trying times. We knew we were safe.
He was the undisputed gaon of the dor, unparalleled in his knowledge of every area of Torah—including the most remote areas of Halachah and Aggadah, Nigleh and Nistar alike. In an era in which titles are used freely, when the words “gaon” and “tzaddik” are used to denote a position, R’ Chaim stood out as truly deserving of the greatest title of all—sar haTorah.
Attempting to portray such a Yid is an impossible task not just because his greatness in Torah, in hasmadah, in dveikus to Torah—and through it to Hashem—defies description, but because the concepts that made up his existence are way beyond our comprehension. Can we wrap our minds around how a mere mortal could rise to such heights, to become one with the heilige Torah itself? Can we possibly comprehend that a person could be so removed from this world that he needed to ask which brachah achronah to make after every meal because he did not know what he had eaten? That a person could awaken and tell his family that he was making a siyum on Maseches Brachos—the masechta with the most words—because he finished it in his sleep?
We cannot understand it. But still, studying the ways of a malach like R’ Chaim should propel us to raise our sights, to see the impact the ko’ach haTorah has even in this world, to realize that greatness can be attained.
R’ Chaim never held an official position. He was not one to speak at public events, choosing single-word answers over lengthy discourse. He barely traveled, but his word was heard around the globe. Repeating a chiddush or a psak of the Gaon to a friend at a simchah or a family event was as normal as saying over a vort from the Chafetz Chaim or the Chasam Sofer.
The countless sefarim that he wrote—ostensibly every shanah me’uberes, when he had an extra month to work on them—illuminated the Torah world with their clarity and erudite breadth. The sugyos that R’ Chaim chose to write about, mostly unchartered territory, demonstrated a deep-seated love toward the Torah and a desire to see every facet of it accessible to the masses. Among these are a sefer on kiddush hachodesh and machatzis hashekel, a kuntres on the kashrus of locusts, and a pirush on Sefer Rezuel Hamalach. He also elucidated on Zera’im, eglah arufah, Perek Shirah, geirim,and avadim with brilliant clarity. His pirush on Talmud Yerushalmi explains this most difficult miktzo’a so even a layman could learn it. He also wrote a sefer to answer the Maharsha’s questions on the entire Shas and a sefer that marshals the words of Chazal on unexplained pesukim in Tanach.
To say he was a bridge to the gedolim of yesteryear, such as his uncle the Chazon Ish and his father, the Steipler Gaon, would be limiting who he was. But he was that too. He knew every psak of the Chazon Ish, every hanhagah and chumrah, and he championed them to all of Klal Yisrael. One of the first sefarim R’ Chaim wrote was Shoneh Halachos, a kitzur of Mishnah Berurah incorporating the psakim of the Chazon Ish.
In just a few words
His psak was held in high acclaim, and the multitudes followed his every direction, whether with regard to which name to add to someone in need of a yeshuah or whether to do a certain shidduch. His word affected change even in shamayim. The miraculous wonders that emerged from the confines of 23 Rashbam were the stuff of legends.
The lines of desperate people who waited on the cement steps that led to the kodesh hakadoshim, the sefarim-lined room where heaven and earth met, to hear the words “brachah v’hatzlachah” knew that his word held sway in the upper spheres. He was a virtual Urim V’tumim, giving directives with apparent ease. One person was told to learn Maseches Chullin, another to put his pei’os in front of his ears. The childless yungerman was told to publish a sefer of his chiddushim and merit a yeshuah that way. Each case was dealt with individually and given an answer immediately. Incredibly, if the same question regarding the same person was repeated on different occasions, the answer was inevitably he same, while others asking similar questions got different answers. Thousands upon thousands of brokenhearted Yidden were helped by the few words that emerged from his holy mouth.
Through the ko’ach haTorah
There was always a mysterious aura that surrounded him as he sat quietly, calmly making his way through the entire Torah for the umpteenth time with the thirst of a man returning from the desert.
The stories that abounded about the remarkable siyata d’Shmaya that he had have been part of our lore for decades, such as how the grasshopper landed on his window for him to better understand its simanei kashrus; and how the bachur’s chronic allergies disappeared when he accepted upon himself to learn a seder kavua with R’ Chaim, only to return with ferocity after the bachur took off one day from his seder.
Another remarkable and almost supernatural ability that R’ Chaim had was the ability to know how many times a word or ma’amar Chazal appears in different parts of the Torah. He famously knew how many times Moshe’s name appears in Torah better than the computer search that had included “mashah” (Devarim 15:2) and “miseh” (Shemos 12:4).
His hallowed eyes, purified with the kedushas haTorah, saw what no one else’s did. A bachur was once reprimanded for not being careful with waiting between fleishigs and milchigs; R’ Chaim had seen the image of a goat on his forehead, a sign of having transgressed the issur of lo sevashel gedi. A brokenhearted person involved in a fatal car accident was consoled with one written word: “Amalek.” R’ Chaim’s segulah of drinking wine for Havdalah was not working, a petitioner said. “Yayin nesech,” R’ Chaim replied, and the man realized that the non-Jewish aide who helped his ailing father-in-law often touched the wine. His eyes saw far and near as he promised, reassured, and advised countless individuals in need.
Nothing but Torah
Part of R’ Chaim’s secret was his ability to completely ignore all distractions. His father, the Steipler Gaon, attested that “ven mein Chaim’ke lernt, hert er garnisht—When my Chaim learns, he hears nothing” when a visiting rav asked that the room be emptied so that they could discuss something in private. The tumult that constantly surrounded him—the gabba’im and petitioners, the photographers and tourists—did not seem to bother him in the slightest. He was doing what he loved most, and he had the ability to block everything else out. Anything that wasn’t related to Torah was irrelevant to him.
During the Six-Day War, as military vehicles drove by his home heading toward the battlefield, his chavrusa testified that the only thing the word “tank” would have meant to R’ Chaim was whether it was considered a kli ha’asui lanachas, a halachic term regarding whether a large item can be mekabel tumah.
A visiting guest asked him about the Twin Towers shortly after 9/11. “Ich ken zei nit—I don’t know them,” R’ Chaim responded. If it wasn’t Torah, it was foreign and uninteresting. In fact, he didn’t even know the names of the streets he would walk every day to and from kollel!
Duties of the mind
R’ Chaim was renowned for the siyum he made each Erev Pesach on kol haTorah kulah. But what is less famous is what went into that siyum each year. The siyum was comprised of Tanach, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Tosefta, masechtos ketanos, Mechilta, Toras Kohanim, Sifra, Midrash, Zohar, Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch. R’ Chaim set up a schedule that enabled him to cover all these within the span of one year, and he would refer to these as his “chovos”—these were debts that had to be repaid, and pushing off the payment period was not an option. The severity with which R’ Chaim viewed these chovos actually caused one of his mechutanim to panic when the Gaon informed him that he would not make it to all the sheva brachos of the new couple because he had chovos that were pressing on him.
How did he manage to finish all this in 12 months? He would awaken at midnight to start paying off his debts. He would learn eight blatt of Talmud Bavli along with the corresponding gemaros in Yerushalmi. After finishing a perek in Gemara, R’ Chaim would learn that perek in Tosefta. Additionally, he would learn one perek in Tanach, three perakim in Rambam, five pages in Shulchan Aruch, three pages in Mishnah Berurah, and one daf in Zohar. All of these limudim were in addition to the regular iyun sedarim that he held.
In order to be able to finish all of Shas and still have time for the small masechtos that do not have Gemara, R’ Chaim set aside certain days when he would learn more than the regular eight blatt. One rule that he instituted for himself was that the eight blatt cannot be from two different masechtos; if there were fewer than eight blatt until the end of a masechta, he would finish it that day so that the next day he could learn eight blatt from the new masechta. This sometimes led him to learn 15 blatt a day if after the original daily eight blatt there remained only seven blatt until the end of the masechta. Maseches Makkos, for instance, with its 23 blatt, had to be learned in only two days! Add the Tosefta and Yerushalmi, and the amount of willpower, siyata d’Shmaya, and concentration that this feat required becomes even more apparent.
Some days were more intense than others. There were days when he “had to” learn 50 blatt in Yerushalmi to cover all the dafim that correspond to what he’d learned in Bavli. And so would another day of rigorous limud haTorah, of paying off yet another day of holy chovos, pass. Day after day, week after week, R’ Chaim steadily made his way through the entire Torah.
One fascinating aspect of R’ Chaim’s chovos is how he managed to cover them despite disturbances that came up. In what was clearly a stroke of hashgachah, three out of the four times that R’ Chaim sat shivah and was unable to learn his regular sedarim occurred on or before a shanah me’uberes, allowing R’ Chaim to have an extra month to make up the missing time before Erev Pesach.
Not always was it easy. When his uncle the Chazon Ish passed away, R’ Chaim was so broken that he could barely concentrate on the Gemara that he needed to learn. But a chov is a chov, and R’ Chaim pushed himself to do it regardless, reviewing the next day that which he had not fully understood earlier.
Every waking moment was spent learning yet another word of Torah, never being satisfied with the amount of Torah he had already acquired. Indeed, every moment of the day was calculated so that he could learn for yet another minute. In recent years, R’ Chaim would famously use the word “buha,” the acronym for “brachah v’hatzlachach,” so that he could save more time to learn.
Father of Klal Yisrael
But he still made time for those who needed him. He responded to each letter. All his pressing chovos and cheshek to learn ever more notwithstanding, the Gaon gave considerable amounts of time for all the desperate people who waited to receive the Tzaddik’s brachos for parnassah, shidduchim, nachas, and good health. They all knew that one word from his mouth was enough to open the gates of shefa, to enable them to receive all that they needed. Sometimes, when time was tight, the Gaon sufficed with a brachah for all those gathered, “Buha l’kulam,” and that too was enough for them to be blessed with all the brachos.
R’ Chaim zt”l is surely sitting in yeshivah shel ma’alah, doing what he did during his stay on this world—delving deeply into the words of Torah with the sweetest dveikus. He is surely traveling through the olamos that he created for himself with his unceasing and relentless limud haTorah. He is meeting up with the Steipler, the Chazon Ish, Rav Elyashiv, and his rebbi Rav Mechel Yehudah, reveling in their spiritual delights as they revel in his. And he is surely imploring Hashem, just as he did while in this world, to open the gates of shamayim and be mashpia to all the broken hearts of Klal Yisrael brachah v’hatzlachah.