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15 Av 5766 - August 9, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
This is the Segulah of the Torah

In the Home of Hagaon R' Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita

Part I

"He left behind a son like him." This is how Maran the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Shach ztvk'l expressed it in his eulogy for Maran the Steipler ztvk'l. In a rare moment, the editor of the Hebrew Yated's Musaf Shabbos Kodesh, R' Yisroel Friedman, and writer of these lines, HaRav A. Chefetz, were admitted into the inner sanctum of HaRav Chaim Kanievsky.

It is over twenty years since the passing of the Kehillos Yaakov ztvk'l on 23 Av, 5745. We lesser beings will always find difficulty in grasping the greatness of such cedars of Lebanon. It is daunting to attempt to encompass the stature, impossible to touch at the depths of their internal workings and the exalted level of the personalities of these Torah giants who Hashem implanted in every generation, figures like the Steipler.

We are so limited in vision; we cannot even touch a single thread of the hem of their garments. But since it is our task as writers to present, to the extent of our own limitations, a portrait of the great life of the Steipler, we knew that only those of similar stature could even begin to approach the task.

So, one way to do this without being great enough to appreciate greatness ourselves, is to come and listen to the voice of one of the gedolei Yisroel whom Hashem has seen fit to leave behind for our salvation.

This is the approach of Musaf Shabbos Kodesh, and this is how we came to HaRav Chaim, fully appreciating the rarity of such a precious interview and the value of those moments.

We entered with trepidation and hesitation. Maran invited us to sit down and received us with exceptional shining countenance and effusive warmth. We consulted with him in general and for several long moments, asked him more specific questions. And the great man answered us and guided us.

We did not record everything; not everything needs to be written, not everything can be written. Primarily, etched in our memories was the cordial attitude and geniality, which we carried along with us for a long time to come, in our position as the editorial board of Musaf Shabbos Kodesh.

After we transcribed the recorded interview onto paper, we returned to seek permission to publicize the interview in the honor and memory of Maran the Steipler. And upon that approval, we hereby offer excerpts of the conversation which took place in the home of HaRav Chaim shlita, so that they serve as an illuminating beacon for days to come.


The customs and daily conducts of Maran the Steipler — are they to be considered as binding halochoh?

In many areas, he conducted himself in a certain way since this is what he maintained to be the correct halochoh. But he never wanted to rule questions halachically for others. So long as Maran the Chazon Ish was alive, he certainly did not rule or answers questions in halochoh. But even afterwards, he was always careful not to do so.

Still and all, many precedents and conducts were publicized in his name . . .

R' Avrohom Horowitz publicized what the Steipler himself practiced and indeed, many times, these practices correspond to and represent the halochoh. He, himself, however, never ruled it thus. He was, in fact, one of those who are always wary and fearful of determining halochoh for the public.

What he practiced, however, was very often a way of conduct designed to eliminate any sefeikos, or to encompass several halachic opinions concurrently. Therefore, it is not suitable to serve as a precedent for halachic practice for everyone.

The rabbinical garment (frock) that the Steipler refused to don, preferring the simple style of garment — was this to conform to the ideal of humility or was it a practice of Novardok, where he studied in his youth?

True, he did not wear a rabbincial style garment, but he was attired like other talmidei chachomim. Notwithstanding, he embraced simplicity and austerity. For example, he did not renew his worn kapote for many years, and wore very simply-styled garments.

He was altogether garbed in simplicity and plainness.

He owned a silver cane which R' Menashe Klein had given him as a gift, but he never used it. Never touched it. I have it to this day.

Many maintain that he lived in dire poverty all his life, while others say that this was his approach, his demeanor of sufficing with a bare minimum in all circumstances.

In his earlier periods, the poverty in the home was so intense that he had to go to the dining room [of the yeshiva] to bring some food for the family. Later, however, the situation improved somewhat. But it must be remembered that at all times, he never required much at any rate!

Were his special practices in life actually an expression of the Novardok school of thought or was it simply because he was so wrapped up in Torah learning that he really did not require more than the material subsistence level?

Abba used to talk a great deal about Novardok but was not truly an advocate or representative of its outlook in his own life.

There are some who say that because Maran was so strong physically, he was better equipped to grapple with Torah study as well.

Towards the end, he was so weak that he did not even have the strength to go to shul. But this extreme debility was only in his final years and throughout, he studied to the utmost of his ability.

Maran the Steipler always expressed himself in humility. He often said, "Why do children pursue me in the street?" One time he went as far as to ask, "Am I a meshugeneh, that they run after me?" Didn't he know that he was the acknowledged godol hador?"

No! He held himself as a regular person, even as a `nobody,' certainly not as the supreme authority of his generation.

And yet, notwithstanding, he did lead the generation . . .

Yes, and still, he did not hold of himself — not at all! He would refer his halachic questions in the last period of his life to R' Gedalya Nadel zt'l, whom he considered his authority. After hearing what R' Gedalya had to say, he would reflect; sometimes he accepted his opinion but in other instances he would disagree and not rule according to R' Gedalya. But to ask? He always asked.

Regarding his works Kehillos Yaakov: it is interesting that the Steipler never sought written recommendations as many do for their works. The Chazon Ish also did not seek letters of recommendation for his writings . . .

Actually his first work, Shaarei Tvunah, does have haskomos, including one from R' Menachem Zemba. How did he ask him for it? It happened when someone promised to underwrite the publication of the sefer, but in the end he backed out and my father remained deeply in debt. He had to invest a great deal of effort in selling his sefer in order to pay back those debts.

He traveled to Warsaw, where he met with R' Menachem Zemba and received a letter of approbation from him. It is told that he printed up the letter separately and inserted it inside every copy of the book.

He also got a letter from R' Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. He actually had three letters, all told, which we found among his writings. In general, since he did not write anything with halachic substance he did not feel he needed a special haskomoh for his writings.

Regarding the body of his chiddushei Torah, we heard that Maran the Chazon Ish would first think in deep concentration and then, when he began writing, he would write fluently without any erasures. On the other hand, Maran the Steipler used to write and erase constantly.

True. Father used to write and often erase as he went along, frequently so. He wanted clarity. All of this effort, he would explain, was so that there would be no misunderstanding and that whatever he wrote would be easy to refer to. But as you said, with the Chazon Ish it was otherwise and he almost never wrote something a second time.

People note that the study approach of the Steipler and that of the Chazon Ish were different.

Abba studied in yeshivos throughout his life. He also attended the Chazon Ish a great deal. But his Torah study up until his marriage was in yeshivos.

He used to tell young students not to waste their time but to strictly adhere to the study schedule. However, he did not place any emphasis on how to study — whether in depth or to strive for a broader knowledge through bekiyus.

Maran's conduct in medical matters followed the approach of the Ramban, that is: "What are doctors doing in the house of a G-d-fearing Jew?" Is this true as a rule?

Yes, it is true, but even in this area sometimes, when it was necessary, he would tell people to go to doctors. He, himself, never sought their counsel and would say that they didn't know anything. But one must take this attitude with a grain of salt and not as a general rule; it had its exceptions. Sometimes, doctors do know how to cure and then one must obey them. He did believe in taking routine medicines, such as antibiotics.

In their conduct and approach to life, Maran HaRav Shach and Maran the Steipler were very intertwined. And even though by nature they were dissimilar, and in personal ways they differed, still he relied upon him in everything.

Abba said many times that R' Shach deserved a hearty yasher koach for freeing him from many public responsibilities in his assuming them upon his own shoulders.

Still, there were many public issues and battles in which he became personally and practically involved, such as the controversy against P.A.I. and others.

He intervened when he felt it necessary. When he thought it was unnecessary, he kept out of the battle.

At any rate, it was obvious that he trusted Maran R' Shach implicitly.

Because he maintained that he was right!

In his letters, the Steipler guides every one to subjugate himself to and sacrifice himself to Torah study. In other letters, he encourages the writer to go out and disseminate Torah.

That is because each case had its own approach. Some people are very successful in teaching, in becoming a rosh yeshiva, while others are better suited in increasing their own knowledge through intensive study. All his life, Abba was a rosh yeshiva and said shiurim, but he told me that I must devote myself to pure study, and not to teach on an official basis. He was opposed to my accepting any office, any position; he said I must consecrate myself to study, alone. The Chazon Ish was like that too; he never assumed any position.

If that is so, was the fact that the Steipler did serve as a rosh yeshiva a result of necessity?

Oh, no. He was a rosh yeshiva in order to serve the public. This is what he said as well with regards to the seforim he printed — that he did so in order to disseminate Torah to the public at large.

Regarding this, he once said that if a Torah scholar publishes his works and others study them, if it should happen that he be guilty of bittul Torah — and others are meanwhile studying his works, it will be to his merit. It will decrease his culpability for wasting any of his time . . .

End of Part I

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