A neighbor related that when he informed his six-year-old son of the petirah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, the boy burst into tears. Through sobs, he told his father that he had wanted to ask Rav Chaim a question and now he doesn’t know who to ask. He wanted to know why we have the custom to bang when we hear Haman’s name in the Megillah, but not the two times his evil wife Zeresh is mentioned in the Megillah.
I was moved by the story because it gives a glimpse into the greatness of Rav Chaim and the profound loss we are all reeling from. It wasn’t just his unparalleled knowledge and complete mastery and clarity of all areas of Torah, it was also his care for and devotion to every single Jew of whatever background. The truth is that he would have answered such a question, no less than he would have responded to an intricate question from the greatest of scholars.
It’s well known that for years Rav Chaim would hand reply to every single letter and inquiry sent to him. This was despite the fact that it required tremendous exertion and time, both of which were so precious to him.
Over two decades ago I sent Rav Chaim a letter asking his opinion about a certain matter. His reply arrived a few weeks later. In small letters, he wrote with tremendous humility, “I don’t know anything more than what is written in the Sefer HaPardes (Keansburg).” He concluded with the page number.
I had never heard of the Sefer HaPardes (this was not the Sefer HaPardes attributed to Rashi), and it took me some time before I tracked down the sefer and read what the author had to say about my question.
What struck me about Rav Chaim’s response was not only the brevity and humility of it, but also that he had taken the time to reply at all.
Rav Chaim’s published seforim are extraordinary. His breadth of knowledge and clarity are apparent in his writings. He wrote about many obscure and unfamiliar sections of Torah. He published a four-volume masterful work about ze’arim, the laws connected to agriculture and planting, in the style of the Mishna Berura.
Rav Chaim also began working on a similar work on Kodshim, the corpus of laws involving the divine service in the Bais HaMikdash, including korbanos. He printed the first volume but never printed successive volumes.
Reb Chaim explained that because he spent so much time replying to inquiries and meeting people each day, he didn’t have time to continue the invaluable and unprecedented work.
When told that such a work would invariably benefit future generations, Rav Chaim replied that his primary responsibility is to give chizuk [spiritual encouragement] to this current generation. He felt a responsibility to help those who sought his blessing and guidance and had to prioritize that over what could be beneficial to future generations.
It is a very telling statement. Rav Chaim gave up something precious to him and the Jewish people because he felt it was more important to give chizuk to people who needed him now.
Someone once quipped that if Rav Chaim had a nickel for every person who came to his home, he would have been well off. But he never took a red cent. He gave himself over to Klal Yisrael, old and young alike, even at the expense of his own spiritual accomplishments. Each of those meetings consumed his time and sapped his energy.
On one occasion, a family member was sitting next to Rav Chaim as he was perusing letters that had arrived that day. Rav Chaim showed his relative a letter he received from a young boy. The young boy wrote that in cheder he was learning the parsha of Miketz. When Pharaoh recounts his dreams to Yosef, he says, “Behold seven cows came up achareihen – after them.” The boy wanted to know why it says achareihen and not achareihem, which would seemingly be more appropriate in Hebrew. The boy said that he asked his rebbe but his rebbe didn’t know the answer. Therefore, he was now asking Rav Chaim.
Rav Chaim told his relative that he wasn’t sure how to reply because he didn’t think the young boy would understand the grammar rules involved. The relative suggested that Rav Chaim simply not reply. Rav Chaim explained that the reason he spends so much time replying to letters sent to him, is to give chizuk to the questioner. “I’m not sure if everyone feels chizuk from my responses, but I have no question that such a young boy will feel good about receiving a reply from me to his question.”
After a few more moments of thought, Rav Chaim smiled and wrote back that Pharaoh was in Egypt and didn’t speak Hebrew. That’s why he used incorrect grammar (Rabbi Chaim).
Rav Chaim never held a formal position. He wasn’t a rav or a rosh yeshiva. On one occasion he was asked to substitute for another rebbe. Soon after he began teaching, a boy asked if he could go to the bathroom. When Rav Chaim allowed him, another boy asked if he could go out too. Then another boy asked, as another, until Rav Chaim was left with no students. He promptly got up and went home.
At the end of the day, Rav Chaim was a Jew who loved and lived Torah with every fiber of his being. He had the absolute conviction that the solution to everything, including health problems, lay in the Torah. He was the personification of the words of the Nefesh HaChaim (Sha’ar 4) that Torah is the purpose of the world and there is nothing more valuable.
In a hesped delivered about Rav Chaim, Rabbi Bezalel Rudinsky repeated a thought that Rav Lazer Shach said in a hesped he delivered about Rav Chaim’s father, the Steipler:
The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) states that anyone who is lax regarding eulogizing a Torah scholar is fitting to be buried during his life. As a case in point the Gemara notes that following the death of Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe Rabbeinu’s successor, there was a complaint against the Jewish people, because they didn’t eulogize Yehoshua properly.
How could it be that the nation failed to pay final respects to their great leader?
The point of a eulogy is to be inspired by the life and legacy of the deceased to personally grow in one’s avodas Hashem.
When Yehoshua died the nation undoubtedly spoke of his greatness, including the miracles he facilitated, such as stopping the sun and conquering 31 Canaanite nations. But those are things that the common person cannot relate to. They failed to speak about his greatness in Torah, his humility and his love for every Jew. Those were things the nation could aspire to imitate. By not speaking adequately about them they failed to eulogize him properly. That is what the Gemara refers to as being lax in eulogizing a Torah scholar. Speaking about the scholar’s inimitable greatness that the common person cannot relate to does not motivate others to improve, and therefore fails to fulfill the objective of a eulogy.
Rabbi Rudinsky noted that Rav Chaim’s incredible greatness in Torah is far beyond what we can aspire to. The stories of his knowledge are mind-boggling, but they are largely not relatable. Therefore, if we only repeat those stories we are not eulogizing him properly.
Rather, we should focus on his love for every Jew and the fact that he never turned anyone away. His prioritizing giving chizuk to others over his own growth is something we can relate to.
His name was Shmarayahu Yosef Chaim, which loosely translates as Guardian of Added Life. For nine decades his home was the address where all who visited felt an injection of spiritual life. We have not only lost a life, we have lost the guardian of added life. We are all mourning the irreplaceable loss. May Hashem comfort us all.