Jews become famous for all sorts of reasons. Benjamin Disraeli as a successful prime minister. Theodor Herzl for his vision to create a national home for the Jewish people. Volodymyr Zelensky for his inspirational leadership of a country under siege. Few Jews become famous simply because they rarely leave their own home — and during their time at home, spend week in, week out, year after year, doing exactly the same thing, following the same identical schedule.
For three quarters of a million people to attend the funeral in Israel of someone who fits this description, a person who held no official position and rarely spoke in public, should make us more than curious. It should encourage us to reflect on the values he stood for and the lessons his life may have for us all.
The man was Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. Many Jews in Israel, Charedi and otherwise, gave him an honorary title, the “Prince of Torah”. For that was what he was. He simply studied Torah all day, according to an incredibly exacting schedule, thereby achieving remarkable depths of knowledge and wisdom. With time, this led thousands to his door to seek advice and guidance and to receive his blessing.
Over 20 years ago, Rabbi Kanievsky was already famous in the Charedi world but less widely known elsewhere. I was studying in the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Together with a few friends, I had the privilege of joining him and his wife, Rebbetzen Batsheva Kanievsky — a living legend in her own right — for Shabbat lunch in their humble, simple home. His words were few and he continued learning when not eating. Yet to observe first hand someone whose every move was calculated based on the requirements of Jewish law at that precise moment in time was a remarkable experience. Even more significantly, his was a home built entirely around a life of Torah learning. Rabbi Kanievsky did not have a dining room — he had a “Sefarim Room” (Room of Books), the place in which he learned.
But in that same place, his learning had a profound effect on so many people. For hours each day he welcomed an endless stream of visitors, people seeking counsel, halachic rulings or simply his brief blessings. He had patience for them all and would give endlessly of his precious time, whatever the seeming triviality of their concerns.
Stories of people like Rabbi Kanievsky can quickly fade to legend without something practical to preserve their memory. This time of year provides a unique opportunity to preserve his legacy and, even more importantly, teach it to our children. This is because Rabbi Kanievsky’s life was built around his home. The values he instilled in it, values of Torah study, good deeds and endless kindness, were what enabled him to become a beacon of light for so many.
When Pesach arrives in just over a week, our focus will shift to the Jewish home.Every year I find it striking, how, on the most important night of the year in terms of reinforcing Jewish identity, we turn to individuals and families and say — this is up to you. Rabbis and educators can give you tools, books can provide inspirational messages, the Haggada itself will give you a framework to work from. But, ultimately, we say, it is down to you to make of it what you will. It is up to you to decide the values that will permeate your home, the importance you will choose to give to this night. Whether you will allow the trivial and mundane to govern the evening — or whether the central messages of Jewish identity and Jewish continuity will shine through.
The reason we give this responsibility to individual households is not simply because this is the most effective way of transmitting our story. It is because it is the only way we have a chance of ensuring the values embodied by the Jewish home survive.
This, I think, is the lasting legacy of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.
We may hear the story of his life and think that we are miles away from the world of intensive yeshiva study of Bnei Brak. But at heart he was a man who turned his home into the ultimate place of Jewish values. A home which shined with Torah morals and messages, the very same with which we all attempt to transmit on that special night of the year during the Seder. This is a legacy we can all attempt to learn from — and one which is as eternal as our people itself.
Rabbi Dr Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim synagogue in Hendon, London