Tag Archives: Belorussian Jews

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: Menachem Begin

In Memory of an Israeli Founding Father

Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was born in what is today Belarus to a religious and Zionist family that came from a long line of great rabbis. Interestingly, the midwife that delivered him was the grandmother of fellow Belorussian Jew Ariel Sharon! Begin went to a religious cheder elementary school, and then a religious Zionist high school, and was also a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement. In law school at the University of Warsaw, he organized a Jewish self-defence group to fight rampant anti-Semitism. After graduating, Begin joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Betar organization and soon became the head of its Polish and Czech branches. When Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, Begin fled to Lithuania. The following month, Lithuania was invaded by the USSR and Begin was imprisoned for his Zionist activity and for being a supposed “British imperialist”. Begin was tortured and sentenced to 8 years in a labour camp. He was released in 1941 and put into a Polish resistance force to fight the Nazis. By the end of 1942, Begin’s commander issued him a leave of absence so that he could go to Israel to fight for the Zionist cause. Begin arrived in the Holy Land and joined the militant Irgun, arguing that the Zionist leadership was too soft and that the British had to be expelled. Against the wishes of the Jewish Agency, Begin organized a revolt against the British, with a step-by-step plan that he modeled on the Irish independence movement. The insurgency was launched in February 1944. Begin’s plan worked, and the British would leave three years later, allowing Israel to declare independence. Throughout this time, Begin was Britain’s “most wanted” man and stayed in hiding, appearing in public rarely and usually disguised as a rabbi. Begin went on to sign a deal with Ben-Gurion to combine their forces and create the IDF, though the process was far from smooth. He then formed the right-wing Herut party, winning 14 seats in Israel’s first election. The Herut party was sidelined as “extremist” and only participated in the governing coalition briefly following the Six-Day War. It only became more prominent in 1973 when, following the Yom Kippur War, Herut joined several other parties to form the new Likud coalition. In the 1977 election, Begin won a landslide in what has been called the mahapakh, a “revolution” in Israeli politics. The main reason for his win was that Begin reached out to Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, who long felt like second-class citizens under Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. Begin did not disappoint, and as prime minister started a “Project Renewal” to inject major funding into Mizrachi communities, transforming 82 “slums” into thriving towns. He also pioneered major education reform in Israel, making secondary education compulsory and removing tuition fees for it. Begin’s “economic transformation” shifted Israel away from a socialist economy towards a free-market economy (which saw several hiccups, and admittedly came with both positives and negatives). Most famously, Begin met with Egyptian president Sadat to negotiate the Camp David Accords, resulting in Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab adversary, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Nonetheless, Begin was severely criticized within his own party, accused of no longer being the hawk he once was, and reneging on his own principals. Perhaps to mitigate this, Begin launched a massive campaign of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and Gaza, quadrupling the Jewish population in these regions, and later formally annexed the Golan Heights. Begin’s other famous achievement was Operation Opera, in which Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 1981. This gave rise to the “Begin Doctrine”: that Israel would never allow an enemy state to develop nuclear weapons. In November 1982, Begin’s beloved wife passed away and he fell into a deep depression. Together with his own failing health, and Israel’s quagmire in Lebanon, Begin resigned as prime minister and left the post to Yitzhak Shamir. Begin lived out his life in seclusion, leaving his apartment only to say Kaddish at his wife’s grave. Begin died of a heart attack and had requested a simple Jewish funeral, with no state honours. Unlike other leaders who are buried at Mount Herzl, Begin asked to be buried at the Mount of Olives. His funeral was attended by some 75,000 admirers. Altogether, Begin served on the Knesset for 34 years, and over that time had stints as Minister of Communication, Justice, Labour, Transportation, Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Agriculture. He wrote two books. Next Monday is his yahrzeit.

Historic Footage: Menachem Begin and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Words of the Week

I am completely and unequivocally opposed to the surrender of any of the liberated areas [of Israel] currently under negotiation…
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe


From the Jew of the Week Archives: Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky

Jews of the Week: Zalman Shazar and Reuven Rivlin

Two Israeli Presidents

Reuven Rivlin (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem to a family descended from the great Vilna Gaon, that made aliyah in 1809. His father was a Hebrew University professor who first translated the Koran into Hebrew. Not surprisingly, Rivlin speaks Arabic fluently. That made him a key asset during those years when he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps. In the Six-Day War, Rivlin fought with the Jerusalem Brigade. He later studied law at Hebrew University, and served on Jerusalem’s City Council. In 1988, he was elected chairman of Likud and took his first seat in the Knesset. In 2003, he became Knesset Speaker, a position he held until 2014, when he was elected Israel’s tenth president. In that election, he had the support of Arab MKs, despite the fact that he has always been very right-wing, heavily criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, declared that “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv”, and continues to push for a one-state solution. Nonetheless, he has been praised for building bridges in Israel, and being an eloquent spokesperson on the state’s behalf. Rivlin is a vegetarian and a big supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he once managed decades ago. Earlier this month, his term as Israel’s president came to an end, and he has been replaced by (former Jew of the Week) Isaac Herzog.

Schneur Zalman Rubashov (1889-1974) was born in the Belorussian town of Mir, near Minsk, to a deeply religious Chabad family, and was named after Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From a young age, he was drawn to Zionism and was also a member of Jewish self-defence organizations in Eastern Europe. He regularly wrote articles for a number of Yiddish publications. After being released from the Russian army in 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel-Aviv, changing his last name to “Shazar” (an acronym of his full name). There he worked for the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and also as a journalist. In 1947, Shazar was part of the Jewish delegation to the UN during the critical Partition Plan vote. He was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and became the new state’s Minister of Education. In 1963, Shazar was elected Israel’s third president. He wrote a goodwill message that was taken by the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, where it still rests. On it he wrote: “From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for ‘abundance of peace so long as the moon endures’ (Psalms 72:7).” Shazar was a devoted member of the “Chein Circle” for Hasidic study in Jerusalem, often hosting the group in his presidential residence. He became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and later helped him produce his renowned translation and commentary of the Talmud. Shazar kept a regular correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and often visited him in Brooklyn. He co-founded Kfar Chabad in Israel. Shazar passed away shortly after completing his second term as Israel’s president. Today, his portrait appears on the Israeli 200 shekel note.

Words of the Week

I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah is what has kept us going for 3,800 years.
– Reuven Rivlin

President Shazar toasts the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters (770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)