Considered the leading sage of Israel's non-Hasidic (Lithuanian) ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Aaron Leib Shteinman died Tuesday morning at the age of 104. Shteinman's funeral began at noon in the city of Bnei Brak.
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Hundreds of thousands attended the funeral procession, which proceeded to a cemetery in the city from Rabbi Shteinman's home. In advance of the funeral, a large number of streets in Bnei Brak were closed to traffic and bus and train transportation to the Tel Aviv suburb was boosted. Several dozen people in the throngs were provided medical treatment after fainting or being injured by the press of the crowds or otherwise not feeling well.
In Rabbi Shteinman's will, which was read at the funeral, he asked that no one eulogize him, that no obituaries appear in the press and that no death notices be printed with details of his funeral. "My place in the house of life is among the simple people," he stated. He asked that money not be wasted on an opulent grave for him, that no description of him feature on his gravestone and that children not be named for him.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein was the only person to deliver a eulogy for Rabbi Shteinman, an informal indication that he has been designated as Shteinman's successor.
Reacting to Shteinman's death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "deeply saddened" by the passing of "a giant" of Jewish learning calling him a major figure of "spirit, tradition and ethics" who trained generations who will "carry the torch of the Torah."
President Reuven Rivlin said: “Rabbi Shteinman carried the entire weight of the existence of the Jewish people on his shoulders. A Torah giant and guide who directed and guided the lives of thousands and tens of thousands. Despite his steadfast views he knew how to pass on his message, pleasantly, softly and out of great love for every Jew.”
“In my last meeting with him I had the honor of getting to know the unique scion of the magnificent Lithuanian Jewry. The rabbi was incredibly diligent [in his studies], a Torah genius, benevolent and good-hearted, rich in life experience and advanced in years. A man whose wisdom was second only to this humility,” said Rivlin.
“Rabbi Shteinman laid down a path for endless numbers of Jews and his passing leaves a deep feeling of orphanhood today. May his memory be blessed,” added Rivlin.
Ashekanzi Chief Rabbi David Lau said: “The entire Jewish people have lost one of the greatest spiritual leaders of recent generations this morning. Rabbi Shteinman’s passing is the loss for an entire generation, of millions of Jews in Israel and around the world, of those who knew him and those who [knew him] less. He was the leader of the generation that protected the entire generation with his prayers and concern for all.”
Lau said he met with Shteinman many times over major decisions. Shteinman’s “clarity, powerful thought and clear-headed leadership in the ways of the Torah with a deep understanding of the profundities of life and coping in our lives were unforgettable. Rabbi Shteinman was a once in a generation leader,” said Lau.
The rabbi's many students received instructions to attend Shteinman's funeral. Senior Likud minister Gideon Saar wrote on his Facebook page: "The nation of Israel lost this morning a great leader. Rabbi Aaron Leib Shteinman: Great in Torah, with the devotion of his soul and nationhood."
The leader of the opposition in the Knesset, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, called Rabbi Shteinman "one of the greatest rabbis that the Jewish people of the past century has known." At meetings at the rabbi's home, Herzog said, he was "always amazed by [Rabbi Shteinman's] great modesty and by the extraordinary spiritual power that he was endowed with."
The rabbi was hospitalized a number of times over the past year, for pneumonia among other ailments. This week, he returned to the hospital although initially his condition was not deemed serious. In the hours just prior to his death, his condition deteriorated substantially, prompting leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community to halt study at yeshivas around the country to devote their attention to prayer for Shteinman's recovery.
Shteinman has been regarded as the leader of the non-Hasidic – or so called "Lithuanian" – community since the passing of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv five years ago. He is the head of Degel Hatorah's Council of Torah Sages.
Rabbi Shteinman was regarded as a pragmatist, but he continued to believe that the only education necessary was the Torah. He was most likely the last ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi figure as it is known in Hebrew, about whom it can truly be said – or at least claimed – that he was “the” leader of hundreds of thousands of Haredim around the world, indeed gadol hador: the “greatest of his generation.”