Revered Jewish Sage Buried in One of the Largest Gatherings in Israel’s History

JERUSALEM — Hundreds of thousands of Israelis gathered on Sunday at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a spiritual leader in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, in one of the largest public gatherings in Israeli history. Rabbi Kanievsky died on Friday, aged 94.

Estimates suggested that 400,000 to 750,000 mourners attended the funeral or filled nearby streets, balconies and rooftops, hoping to get as close as possible to the rabbi’s bier. The crowds shut down not only Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox enclave on the eastern edge of Tel Aviv where the rabbi lived, but also large parts of central Israel, where hundreds of schools stayed closed on Sunday, the first day of the Israeli workweek, to prevent students from being stuck in traffic jams.

The estimated crowd numbers were still short of the 850,000 who were said to have attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, another ultra-Orthodox leader, who died in 2013.

But the size of Rabbi Kanievsky’s funeral on Sunday nevertheless reflected the veneration with which he was held by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews — or Haredim, as the community’s members prefer to be known.

Rabbi Kanievsky had no formal role, but he was widely considered a leader of the so-called Lithuanian Jews, a non-Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodox Jewry that has roots in Eastern Europe. Lithuanian Jews form roughly a third of the 1.1 million Haredim in Israel.

Rabbi Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak in January 2021. His family said he had read religious texts for up to 17 hours a day since the 1930s.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

As the authorities tried to lessen the risk of a stampede on Sunday, Israeli military rescue teams were placed on standby at a nearby stadium. Before the funeral, commentators and officials feared a repeat of a catastrophe at a religious festival in northern Israel last March, when 45 Haredi worshipers were crushed to death.

A quiet man with a wispy white beard and wrinkled skin, Rabbi Kanievsky was revered for his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law and scripture. His family said he had read religious texts for up to 17 hours a day since the 1930s.

That relentless scholarship established his reputation as a major sage, leading hundreds of thousands of people to look to him for regular spiritual advice on both the profound and the banal. Every day hundreds of people would line up outside Rabbi Kanievsky’s house to seek his guidance on matters like urgent medical and political issues and even what household appliances they should buy.

Born in 1928 in what is now Belarus, Rabbi Kanievsky moved to what became Israel before World War II — making him one of the last bridges between the European Haredi communities that were decimated during the Holocaust and the new Haredi world that emerged in Israel after the establishment of the state.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s illustrious family heritage also added to his prestige: His father and uncle were considered venerable religious sages, known respectively as the Steipler and the Chazon Ish, long before he rose to prominence himself.

The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, paid tribute to the rabbi in a statement before a cabinet meeting on Sunday. “The name of Rabbi Kanievsky will be remembered as an important part of the Torah history of the people of Israel,” Mr. Bennett said. “The son of the Steipler and the nephew of the Chazon Ish, he continued in their path, after the Holocaust, in the Land of Israel, preserving the Torah world of the destroyed communities of Europe.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the funeral for Rabbi Kanievsky on Sunday. From 400,000 to 750,000 mourners attended or filled nearby streets, balconies and rooftops.Credit…Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

In later life, Rabbi Kanievsky was considered to hold significant influence over an Israeli political party, Degel HaTorah, which represents parts of the Haredi community in the Israeli Parliament and has played a key role in several Israeli governments over the past three decades.

During the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the rabbi became a villain to many secular Israelis when he ordered his followers not to close their schools, even as infection rates rose disproportionately among the Haredim. That decision helped set off one of the biggest showdowns in Israeli history between secular and religious Jews.

But Rabbi Kanievsky later reversed his stance and issued several statements encouraging his followers to adhere to coronavirus restrictions and to be vaccinated.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s insular and ascetic life led to frequent questions from secular Israelis about the extent to which he understood the world on which he pronounced.

His family said he was so focused on Talmudic study that he did not know how to brew tea or the name of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson and gatekeeper, Yaakov Kanievsky, said that the rabbi was solely responsible for his pronouncements and worldview.

But the rabbi’s knowledge of breaking news was nevertheless largely filtered through his grandson, who would shout brief bursts of information into Rabbi Kanievsky’s ear before carefully posing the questions to which he gave his fateful answers. Mr. Kanievsky was also tasked with interpreting the rabbi’s sometimes inaudible responses, giving him influence over both what the rabbi knew of the world, and also how he responded to it.

Police officers escorting the vehicle carrying the body of Rabbi Kanievsky through a cemetery on Sunday in Bnei Brak.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

During a brief encounter with a New York Times reporter last year, Rabbi Kanievsky registered the journalist’s presence only after his grandson spoke loudly in his ear. Then the rabbi quickly returned to his religious texts.

The death of any Haredi leader usually prompts a debate about a successor. But in Rabbi Kanievsky’s case, the question is less pressing because he is survived by another leading Lithuanian cleric, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, 98, who was already considered to hold equal weight in the Haredi world.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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