Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jew of the Week: Rav Chaim Kanievsky

Prince of Torah

Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) was born in Pinsk (then Poland, now Belarus) and made aliyah with his family to Israel when he was six years old. He never left the Holy Land thereafter. His father was the great “Steipler Gaon”, Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, and his maternal uncle was the famed Chazon Ish. Following in their footsteps, Kanievsky became a rabbi, too, and was recognized as a sharp scholar at a young age. As a yeshiva student during Israel’s Independence War, he briefly served in the newly-formed IDF and defended Jaffa (though he did it spiritually, spending most of the time at his post learning Torah!) He then married the daughter of another great rabbi, Rav Elyashiv. Rabbi Kanievsky typically studied Torah for about 17 hours a day. He would wake up at midnight to pray Tikkun Chatzot (mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people) and then learned for the rest of the day, starting with eight (double-sided) pages of the Talmud Bavli, followed by eight pages of the Talmud Yerushalmi, and then selections from a number of Jewish legal codes, the Tanakh, as well as Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts. What normally takes a typical rabbi a lifetime to study, Rav Kanievsky would complete every year! He was famous for his total mastery of all Torah texts, with photographic memory and an ability to mentally “scan” these texts for any word or phrase. He was often called the “Prince of Torah”. In addition to his studies, Rav Kanievsky wrote over a dozen popular books and commentaries. Hundreds of people would line up daily to ask questions and request blessings. His blessings were known to be fulfilled, often miraculously, and his legal rulings were followed closely by religious Jews, especially those in non-Hasidic Ashkenazi communities. He regularly responded to thousands of letters, too. Rav Kanievsky lived simply in a small apartment in Bnei Brak his whole life. After the passing of Rav Shteinman in 2017, he was widely-recognized as the supreme authority on Jewish law, and the top gadol hador. Sadly, the Prince of Torah passed away shortly after the conclusion of Purim last week. He had completed his yearly study cycle the previous day. Some 750,000 people came to his funeral, making it among the largest in Israel’s history.

Words of the Week

In a lottery, it is not the ticket that wins but the person.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

“The Angel”

HaRav Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Yitzchak Feivish Ginsburgh (b. 1944) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was recognized as a math prodigy when still a child. While spending a year in Israel as a teenager, Ginsburgh began learning Torah and becoming more religiously observant. He went on to study philosophy and mathematics, and got a Master’s degree in the latter. He left his Ph.D studies to go yeshiva in Jerusalem instead, becoming a rabbi. After the Six-Day War, he was one of the first people to move into the newly-liberated Jewish Quarter. Around this time, he met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time and became his disciple, eventually resettling in Kfar Chabad. During the Yom Kippur War, he served as the Rebbe’s emissary to the IDF, and even delivered a lulav and etrog to Ariel Sharon on the front line for Sukkot. After this, Ginsburgh founded the first Chabad House in the Sinai, which was later destroyed when Israel gave up the area in its peace treaty with Egypt. The rabbi went on to head the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva near Joseph’s Tomb. He has written over 120 books on a variety of subjects, in both Hebrew and English. He is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Hasidism and Kabbalah, as well as gematria (Jewish numerology), Torah and science, Jewish psychology, and meditation. He is a pioneer of “Hasidic psychotherapy” and is the dean of the Torat Hanefesh School of Hasidic Psychology. Rabbi Ginsburgh is also an avid musician and has composed dozens of popular songs. He has met some controversy in the past for his passionate support of Jewish settlement across all of Israel’s ancestral lands, and for his opposition to government concessions to Israel’s enemies. Despite some of the negative press he has received from the mainstream media, Rabbi Ginsburgh is well-known for his humility, righteousness, profound wisdom, and gentle demeanour. Many refer to him as HaMalakh, “the angel”. Rabbi Ginsburgh has thousands of devoted students around the world, and still presides over a network of Jewish schools in Israel. He is undoubtedly among the greatest contemporary Jewish scholars and religious leaders. Today is his 77th birthday.

Words of the Week

Ours is the first generation in modern times to understand the truly universal human condition and to seek to bring all peoples of the earth together in peace and harmony.
– Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Jews of the Week: Babatha and Yadin

The War Hero Archaeologist Who Made a Revolutionary Discovery

(Credit: PBS/Nova)

Babatha bat Shimon (c. 104-132 CE) was born in the town of Mahoza by the Dead Sea to a wealthy Jewish family originally from Ein Gedi. It was in this area that Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered a leather pouch with her belongings in 1960. The documents inside included her legal, financial, and marriage contracts, presenting an eye-opening picture of the life of an upper-class Jewish woman two millennia ago. An only child, Babatha inherited all of her father’s date palm orchards when he passed away. She married her first husband, a man named Yeshu, while still a teenager. He died several years later, after which she married another date farmer named Yehuda. One of the discovered documents shows that Babatha lent her husband a sizeable loan (interest-free, of course). When he also passed away, Babatha seized all of his property as collateral. The documents reveal a number of legal battles that Babatha had to overcome, as well as her impressive financial and business acumen. She spoke several languages and was well-educated. During the Bar Kochva Revolt, Babatha fled from the Romans and hid in a cave, together with one of Bar Kochva’s generals, named Yonatan. It is believed she was killed in the war shortly after. Archaeologist Richard Freund has said that Babatha “revolutionized the way that we think about Jewish women in antiquity.”

Yigael Sukenik (1917-1984) was born in Israel to Polish-Jewish parents. He joined the Haganah at 15, leaving several years later after a dispute with Yitzhak Sadeh. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an archaeologist. While studying at the Hebrew University he changed his last name to “Yadin”. When Israel’s Independence War broke out, Yadin returned to the newly-formed IDF and became the head of its operations. The following year, he became Chief of Staff. One of his first duties was going to Switzerland to study their army-reserve organization. He then created a similar reverse system in Israel. After resigning from the IDF to protest defence budget cuts, Yadin returned to academia. His doctoral thesis on a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls won an Israel Prize. He travelled around the world to find and purchase lost and stolen Dead Sea Scrolls to return them to Israel. Meanwhile, Yadin excavated some of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, including Masada, Hazor, and Ein Gedi. During the Six-Day War, he returned to the military to advise the prime minister, and years later was part of the Agranat Commission that investigated the failure of the Yom Kippur War. As a result of this, he formed a new political party, Dash, which sought to fight corruption and restore confidence in Israel’s government. The party won a whopping 15 seats in its first election, and soon joined the new Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. Yadin became deputy prime minister, and played a critical role in the Camp David Accords. He wrote a number of bestselling books, taught at the Hebrew University for over 30 years, and was a renowned expert on the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Words of the Week

Also I have seen under the sun, that in the place of law there is evil, and in the place of justice there is evil.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:16)