Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a senior leader in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, was laid to rest on Sunday in one of the greatest public gatherings in Israeli history. Rabbi Kanievsky, 94, passed away on Friday.
About 400,000 to 750,000 mourners were estimated to attend the funeral or crammed onto the streets, balconies, and rooftops to get as close to the rabbi’s bier as possible. To keep students from getting stuck in traffic on Israel’s first working day of the week, many schools in central Israel remained closed on Sunday to accommodate the large crowds. The rabbi’s hometown of Bnei Brak, a small ultra-Orthodox neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv, was not the only place affected.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, another ultra-Orthodox leader who passed away in 2013, is believed to have been among the 850,000 people who attended his funeral.
A burial service for Rabbi Kanievsky that was as big as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — or Haredim, as they call themselves — was held on Sunday, and the size of it reflected the reverence that the community held for him.
Rabbi Kanievsky had no official status, although he was widely regarded as a leader of the so-called Lithuanian Jews, a non-Hasidic strain of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that originated in Japanese Europe. In Israel, Lithuanian Jews make up about one-third of the country’s Haredim.
Rescue teams from the Israeli army have been stationed at a nearby stadium to limit the risk of a stampede on Sunday. Commentators and police officers were concerned about a replay of last March’s tragedy at a spiritual competition in northern Israel, where 45 Haredi devotees were crushed to death.
Rabbi Kanievsky was a famous scholar of Jewish law and Torah, a quiet man with a wispy white beard and aged complexion. His family reported that he had been studying spiritual materials for up to 17 hours a day since the 1930s.
Those tireless studies built his reputation as a significant sage, leading a great many people to seek his advice on both the profound and the commonplace, leading to a large number of thousands. Rabbi Kanievsky’s house had a daily queue of people waiting to seek his advice on a variety of topics, including important medical and political matters as well as what household items they should buy.
One of the last connections between the European Haredi communities that were ravaged during the Holocaust and Israel’s new Haredi society following the establishment of the state, Rabbi Kanievsky was born in 1928 and came to what is now Israel before World War II.
The distinguished lineage of Rabbi Kanievsky’s father and uncle, the Steipler and Chazon Ish, contributed to his renown as a revered spiritual leader even before he achieved the fame of his own.
At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett paid tribute to the revered rabbi. ‘The name of Rabbi Kanievsky will undoubtedly be remembered as an important part of the Torah historical history for Israelis,” said MK Bennett. This Steipler descendant and Chazon Ish descendant carried on their legacy after the Holocaust by maintaining the Torah world of Europe’s exterminated communities in Israel.
When Rabbi Kanievsky was alive, the Degel HaTorah party, which represents some of the most conservative members of the Haredi community in Israel’s parliament, considered him to have a major influence on Israeli politics.
The rabbi became an enemy of many secular Israelis during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic when he commanded his followers not to close their universities, at the same time when infection costs grew disproportionately among the many Haredim. Those words sparked one of Israel’s most acrimonious clashes between secular and religious Jews.
He eventually modified his position and published several speeches urging his supporters to adhere to coronavirus limitations and get vaccinated.
Inquiries from secular Israelis about Rabbi Kanievsky’s understanding of the world he spoke about were frequent due to his ascetic and solitary lifestyle.
As a result of his devotion to Talmudic study, according to his family, his knowledge of basic facts such as the name of Israel’s longest-serving prime leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, was severely limited.
“The rabbis are exclusively liable for their utterances and worldview,” said Rabbi Yaakov Knanivsky, Rabbi Knanivsky’s grandson.
It was his grandson, however, who provided Rabbi Kanievsky with the breaking news, who would shout brief bursts of information into his ear before methodically posing the questions to which he provided his tragic responses. To add to this, Mr. Kanievsky had to decipher what the rabbi knew about the world and how he responded to it by decoding his normally inaudible comments.
Rabbi Kanievsky was only aware of the presence of a New York Times reporter during a brief encounter last year when his grandson screamed in his ear. The rabbi then quickly went to his spiritual books.
There are often discussions about who will succeed a Haredi chief after his death. However, in the instance of Rabbi Kanievsky, the question is less pressing because he is survived by one of Lithuania’s most prominent Haredi clerics, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, 98.