All in the Family| March 22, 2022
"He was always a family man. He loved his children and closely monitored their development. Until his very last day, he always needed his children around him"
For most of the world, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was a scholar, a master, a leader.
But for his children, he was Abba — a warm and loving father who was decidedly more elevated than the other fathers they knew, but always involved in their lives and visibly happier when his children were around his table.
Rav Chaim himself grew up in a tightly bound family. His father, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, was known as the Steipler Gaon. His mother, Rebbetzin Pesha Miriam, was a daughter of Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Karelitz, rav of Kosava, Belarus. She was also a sister of the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz.
Rebbetzin Pesha Miriam’s two sisters married Torah royalty as well: One brother-in-law was Rav Shmuel Greineman, father of Rav Chaim Greineman; another was Rav Nachum Meir Karelitz, the father of Rav Nissim.
Rav Chaim was born in Pinsk, but the family immigrated to Eretz Yisrael when he was a child and settled in Bnei Brak. Soon enough the Torah giants of the extended families became the prime forces shaping not only the Torah community of Bnei Brak, but the entire country.
All along, they maintained a tight familial bond.
While Rav Chaim’s father, the Steipler Gaon (top), and his uncle the Chazon Ish were personality opposites, they were the two most influential forces in his life
Rav Chaim’s parents lived in the same home as the Chazon Ish, and thus his childhood was dominated by two larger-than-life personalities: his father, the Steipler Gaon; and his uncle, the Chazon Ish. Both left indelible stamps on Rav Chaim.
The Chazon Ish was involved in Rav Chaim’s shidduchim and ultimately helped finalize his shidduch with Rebbetzin Batsheva Esther, the daughter of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Until the end of his life, Rav Chaim was fiercely loyal to his uncle and brooked no deviation from his halachic standards.
Rav Chaim’s father, the Steipler Gaon, had a completely different personality from his son. While Rav Chaim was similar to his stoic uncle, the Steipler readily showed emotion and could be heard rebuking himself, “Yankele, what will become of you?” He fused analytical brilliance with chassidic warmth, and brought up his children with tales of tzaddikim.
Rav Chaim’s path to greatness seemed assured early on. He gained a name for his encyclopedic knowledge and superhuman diligence long before he turned 20.
The path to marriage, however, was not easy for Rav Chaim. The Chazon Ish had hoped to marry him off at the age of 17 or 18, but the shidduch offers trickled in slowly, since Rav Chaim was virtually the only yeshivah bochur in the litvish world at the time who grew a beard. In those years, it simply wasn’t an accepted practice. No girl — especially the more “open” Yerushalmi girls — would consider marrying a young man with a full beard.
Rav Chaim was already 24 when someone suggested young Batsheva Esther Elyashiv as a potential shidduch. She was daughter of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and the great-granddaughter of the Leshem. Her maternal grandfather, the famed “Tzaddik of Yerushalayim,” Rav Aryeh Levin, strongly encouraged her to pursue the shidduch.
He had a powerful ability to discern talmidei chachamim from afar, and he told her, “Listen to me. This bochur is going to be the gadol hador. You should take him.”
Rav Elyashiv took a long trip, involving several bus rides, to the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, so he could observe Rav Chaim learning. Then he went to the Chazon Ish’s home in Bnei Brak to discuss the shidduch. He sat down, facing the Chazon Ish, and said… nothing.
The Chazon Ish himself, also a master of silence, likewise said nothing. The two sat in silence for a long time, neither of them uttering a word, even though Rav Elyashiv had spent many long hours traveling from Yerushalayim — an exhausting trip in those days — in order to get there.
It was only at the very end of the visit that Rav Elyashiv broke the silence, asking in Yiddish, “What does the Rav say about the bochur?”
The Chazon Ish replied, “The bochur is the Rogatchover of this generation — not only in bekius, but in iyun as well.”
After he left, the Chazon Ish called over Rebbetzin Pesha Miriam and said, “This is a shidduch that will come to fruition, and I approve of it. It would be good to make a shidduch with this person.”
Years later, Rav Chaim explained to his children why the Chazon Ish was so impressed when Rav Elyashiv didn’t utter a word.
“The Gemara says that in Eretz Yisrael, a person is evaluated by his silence,” he told them. “The Chazon Ish, who had perfected the art of silence, knew how to appreciate Rav Elyashiv’s mastery of the same art.”
But the silence wasn’t quite as appreciated when Rav Chaim first met his kallah. Years later, Rav Chaim would laugh when recounting his first meeting.
At first, there was a discomfiting silence. Then he asked her, “What is your father learning these days?”
He was so immersed in Torah that he thought she would tell him about the sugya Rav Elyashiv was studying, and he could speak to her in learning.
Soon enough they learned their own shared language, and would complement one another perfectly: Rebbetzin Batsheva served as a “shomer” every Shabbos while her husband studied by the light of a kerosene “luxe” lamp, and she kept his early morning schedule, joining him for tefillos in Lederman’s shul. Together they raised a family of eight children in a home woven of the varied threads of Torah royalty each brought to their joint edifice.
Rav Elyashiv with his esteemed son-in-law. “It would be good to make a shidduch with this person,” the Chazon Ish told Rav Chaim’s mother after Rav Elyashiv sat silently before him
Rebbetzin Batsheva valued every moment of her husband’s Torah learning, and refused to allow him so much as to prepare a tea. She dealt with every logistic and practical issue that arose in the home, while her husband traversed Shas with astounding rapidity, gathering knowledge and renown.
The Steipler treated Rebbetzin Batsheva as royalty. Rav Avraham Yeshaya, the oldest son, remembers once being sent to ask his grandfather for a brachah when his mother was sick.
The Steipler’s eyes widened and he exclaimed, “She is asking me for a brachah? Her brachos are much more powerful than mine! She performs chasadim that I could never do!”
Then the Steipler began to describe to the little boy how his mother would host lonely, elderly women in her home, giving them food and drink without any remuneration, and sometimes even getting cursed and verbally abused in return.
“I couldn’t do such things,” the Steipler concluded, “so her brachos are much better.”
When young Avraham Yeshaya returned home, he told Rav Chaim that the Steipler had said Rebbetzin Batsheva’s brachos were worth much more than his own. Rav Chaim took the words very seriously, and after that, he asked his wife for a brachah every year before going to Kol Nidrei on Erev Yom Kippur. Not only that, but also on Erev Pesach, before he went to bake matzos, he would ask for her brachah for the matzos to be mehudar. One year, he forgot to ask and the matzah baking was unsuccessful.
“You see?” he said. “We failed because I didn’t ask her for a brachah.”
Rav Chaim’s children remember the Steipler as a steady presence in their childhood home. The boys recalled that he’d give them haircuts and even come fix the trissim, since he had golden hands and knew his son was focused solely on his learning.
But the Steipler’s expertise wasn’t reserved for practical matters; he also guided his son toward his life’s calling.
After Rav Chaim had been married and learning in kollel for several years, famed askan and MK Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz once approached him with a proposal. He knew the finances in the Kanievsky home were very tight, and he wanted to offer Rav Chaim a job in a yeshivah. It was a position that involved no fundraising, and he wouldn’t even have to say shiur. He just had to be there, to speak in learning to bochurim, and answer sh’eilos, nothing more. It seemed tempting.
Rav Chaim approached his father for advice, and explained the situation.
The Steipler looked at Rav Chaim and gave him an emphatic no.
“Your tafkid is to sit and learn, nothing more,” he said. “That’s what you’re here for.”
Rav Chaim would repeat the story often, and remark that he was grateful for his father’s advice every single day. Somehow, the Steipler was able to sense that his son would be able to shape the Torah world and affect the future of so many Jews without leaving his home or accepting a formal position. He intuited what his son could be, and the path that would take him there.
Even though Rav Chaim dedicated every moment to Torah learning, and even though he was completely uninvolved in the practical details of running a home, he was a devoted sibling — he’d faithfully visit his sister Rebbetzin Barzam every Friday afternoon, and host his brother-in-law Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein every Friday morning. And his children attest that he was a warm and loving father.
When they were small children, he’d teach them the names of the masechtos by singing them a song naming them all. He completed Shas with each son before bar mitzvah — he knew they wouldn’t absorb every detail, but wanted them to have a basic familiarity with the concepts for when they’d learn them again in depth.
Rav Chaim also took his children to the zoo (they convinced him it was worth the trip to recite the brachah of meshaneh habriyos) and there was a memorable trip to the seashore. More typically, he’d play “games” with them on the long, dark Friday nights — they’d quote maamarei Chazal and he’d name the source, often adding sources in addition to the ones listed in their sefer. Or they’d name a sefer and he’d tell them exactly where it was situated on the multiple bookshelves flanking the walls.
“In contrast to what you may have expected or heard, my father took a great interest and was deeply involved in everything that happened with us in cheder and school,” his son Rav Avraham Yeshaya remembers. “He was always a family man. He loved his children and closely monitored their development. Until his very last day, he always needed his children around him.
“When I was a small child,” Rav Avraham Yeshaya recalls, “I would come home from cheder and my father sometimes picked me up, put me on his shoulders, and carried me around the house. During the hakafos on Simchas Torah, he would also let me ride on his shoulders while he danced. He lived with his children. He was always with us, we were always at his side. He cared about everything that happened in our lives, and he continued to care as we became parents ourselves.”
Rav Avraham Yeshaya’s brother Rav Shlomo echoed the same plaintive sentiment as he stood before his father’s mitah this week. Millions of people may have been watching, waiting for some grandiose pronouncement, but he was simply a child bidding goodbye to a father who he knew loved him — loved all his children — very much.
“Abba, you were so great,” he said, talking with no airs or formality, no distance or pretense. “There is no way we can properly eulogize you.”
He gazed at the endless crowds of people who saw his father as their guide, their leader, the master of Torah hidden and revealed. They didn’t know the father who put small boys on his shoulders and danced with them, the father who taught lisping sons the names of the masechtos, who delighted his children on long, dark Friday nights with games he invented himself.
“All we can do,” Rav Shlomo said, “is tell the stories that little children tell about great men.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 904)
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