Leader of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox Community Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky Dies at 94

Known as the 'minister of Torah' in the ultra-Orthodox community, Kanievsky was seen as a unique and very different leader from his predecessors in the Lithuanian community. He will be interred on Sunday

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attending a Council of Torah Sages meeting in Bnei Brak last year.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attending a Council of Torah Sages meeting in Bnei Brak last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, died on Friday. He was 94.

Rabbi Kanievsky died at his home in Bnei Brak after efforts to resuscitate him failed. His funeral will take place on Sunday in Bnei Brak, which hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend.

He was considered one of the two leaders of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy, together with Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

Kanievsky's health had deteriorated over the past few years. He had tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, amid a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in his family and among his associates.

President Isaac Herzog issued a statement shortly after Kanievsky was pronounced dead, saying his "love of the Torah, his modesty, his humility and his spiritual leadership will be missing for the yeshiva world and the entire people of Israel."

Hundreds of people stand outside Kanievsky's home on Friday.Credit: Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also paid his condolences, saying he "always made sure to receive every person with an open heart and lightheartedness."

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said that "the people of Israel have lost a huge scholar who was a key link in the chain of Torah transmission from generation to generation."

The Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, said that "the people of Israel have lost the giant of a generation."

For years, Kanievsky refrained from taking on the public leadership of the community, but following the death of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman in 2017, who was considered the last “maran” — a title given to exceptionally respected rabbis — Kanievsky began providing guidance to his community.

Known as the “minister of Torah” in the ultra-Orthodox community, he was seen as a unique and very different leader from his predecessors in the Lithuanian community – Shteinman, and Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Eliezer Schach. His leadership was seen as Hasidic in style in some respects, despite the division in Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy between the Lithuanian and Hasidic communities.

Kanievsky drew on blessings and the power of “righteousness,” in a break from the scholarly approach of other leaders. He would issue directives rather than engaging in consultations, and his decisions were delivered on the spot, unlike his predecessors and his fellow leader, Rabbi Edelstein.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Kanievsky instructed schools and yeshivas to remain open despite government regulations requiring that the country’s educational system be shut down, claiming that halting the study of Torah was more dangerous than the threat posed by the virus. About a week and a half later, he ordered the synagogues closed, but not yeshivas.

Kanievsky was born in 1928 in Pinsk, in what is today Belarus. His father was the prominent Torah sage Rabbi Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky, who was known as the Steipler rabbi. His mother, Pesha Miriam, was the sister of the Hazon Ish, the revered Rabbi Abraham Yishayahu Karelitz.

Kanievsky was very close to his uncle, as well as to Rabbi Schach, meaning that he was raised and educated under the three leaders who shaped ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel.

He immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1934 with his family and settled in Bnei Brak. He married Batsheva Esther, daughter of esteemed Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, in 1951.

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