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
The Rabbi Who Captured a Lion, and Saved Israeli Farmers
Raphael Meir ben Yehuda Panigel (1804-1893) was born in Bulgaria—then part of the Ottoman Empire—the only child of a wealthy and religious Sephardic Jewish family. When he was 3 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem. Despite being orphaned at 15, Panigel soon became a respected rabbi in the Holy City. At just 27 years old, the community appointed him as their official emissary to travel around the world to teach Torah and to collect funds in support of the old yishuv, the Jewish community that struggled to make a living in the Holy Land. In 1845, he was received by Pope Gregory XVI and inspired him to support and protect Jewish communities in Christian lands. Rabbi Panigel made several trips across North Africa, gaining a reputation as a holy miracle-worker. In one famous incident that happened in Tunis, a lion escaped from the city’s zoo and was terrorizing the locals. Incredibly, it was Rabbi Panigel that captured the lion. When he was asked how he did so, he replied that one who is righteous and fears God need not fear anything else. In 1880, Rabbi Panigel was appointed the Rishon LeZion, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and in 1890, the Ottomans made him hakham bashi, chief authority representing the Jewish community. He composed a penetrating work called Lev Marpe with novel Torah and Talmudic insights. He was also instrumental in developing heter mechira, allowing Jewish farmers in Israel to continue working during the Sabbatical shemitah year (such as this year) in a kosher way. As the shemitah of 1889 approached, the struggling Jewish immigrants of the First Aliyah worried how they would survive if they had to let the land lie fallow, considering the country was then completely undeveloped. After consultations with other Torah luminaries, Rabbi Panigel found a way to work around the shemitah restrictions, allowing the faithful farmers to survive while also adhering to Torah law. Rabbi Panigel was the first to institute heter mechira, a practice which continues in Israel to this day. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famous “father of Modern Hebrew”, wrote of how he was inspired by Rabbi Panigel and described him as being of “electrifying” holiness, like one of the Biblical Patriarchs.
Painting of the Ramban from the walls of the Akko Auditorium
Moshe “Bonastruc” ben Nachman (1194-1270) was born in Gerona (present-day Spain) to a deeply religious Sephardic Jewish family. From a young age he studied with some of the great Sephardic sages of the day, and by the time he was 16 was already recognized as a wise scholar in his own right. He also studied medicine and became a sought-after physician. He was soon the chief rabbi of Catalonia and published several highly-acclaimed works, including glosses on the Talmud and several legal texts. Rabbi Moshe would become known as the Ramban, based on the initials of his name, and also as Nahmanides to the wider world. (The Ramban should not be confused with the Rambam. In fact, the Ramban helped to settle a philosophical dispute that first began with the Rambam in the previous century.) In 1263, Ramban was summoned to publicly debate a group of Dominican friars, before King James I, to settle whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith. Rabbi Moshe tried his best to avoid the debate, which he knew would be a setup where Judaism could never be shown to win. The king conferred royal protection to him, promising no retribution of any kind. The Ramban gently tore down all the arguments of the Christians, and expertly defended Judaism, later publishing a written account of this famous “Disputation of Barcelona”. As he predicted, the failed friars sought to have him executed for “blasphemy”. The king, however, proved wise and fair, decreeing only a two-year’s exile, and gave the Ramban a gift of 300 gold solidi. (The friars then took their cause to the pope, unsuccessfully.) The Ramban journeyed to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found just two Jews left there, following the ravages of the Crusades. He resolved to reinvigorate Jewish life in the Eternal City, building a small synagogue (which still stands today) and re-establishing a vibrant Jewish presence. Henceforth, a Jewish community has never ceased from Jerusalem. The Ramban spent his last days in Acre, where he similarly rebuilt the Jewish community. While there, he wrote his most famous work, the Commentary on the Torah. The commentary is among the first to feature mystical interpretations, since the Ramban was also a renowned Kabbalist. He is considered among the greatest rabbis of all time. Tomorrow, the 11th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.
Words of the Week
We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice. – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Interior of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City