In the Home With Hagaon haRav Chaim Kanievsky, Zt”l

Published: December 26, 2023
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An Interview With Harav Uri Tieger, The Gadol Hador’s Editor

The petirah of Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, close to two years ago, still leaves a gaping hole in Klal Yisrael. When Harav Chaim was niftar, he took the rank of Gadol Hador with him, leaving behind his sefarim and the multitudes of advice and guidance that changed people’s lives for the better.

While much is known about the sefarim authored by Harav Chaim, less is known about the man responsible for the expertise behind their publication. That man is Harav Uri Tieger, who became Rav Chaim’s trusted proofreader and editor, as well as his beloved confidante. Over a span of more than 20 years, Rav Tieger was instrumental in reviewing Rav Chaim’s manuscripts and preparing them for print.

Rav Tieger is also the author of nearly eight sefarim of his own. Rav Chaim himself wrote comments on every margin of every page of Rav Tieger’s sefer L’dofkei B’teshuvah, on the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah. Rav Tieger’s latest sefer, Zevach Pesach, which deals with the Rambam’s Hilchos Korban Pesach, is the culmination of a six-year project that began during Rav Chaim’s lifetime.

In addition to his sefarim, Rav Tieger is known for the many videos he had taken of Rav Chaim while the two learned together. These videos, which Rav Tieger himself distributes, reveal a close and candid look at the Torah giant of our generation. The last of the 72 videos was taken on the final day of Rav Chaim’s life.

Rav Tieger’s unique life story brings an extraordinary dimension to his relationship with Rav Chaim and the role he played in the Gadol Hador’s life. In an exclusive interview, Rav Tieger speaks with candor, affability and humility of his unlikely upbringing, his association with Rav Chaim and the bond that grew between them. Drawing on his many years of close confidence with Rav Chaim, Rav Tieger also relates what he thinks Rav Chaim’s reaction would be to the urgent and critical challenges Klal Yisrael faces today during this eis tzarah.

You have a remarkable background. Can you talk about it and how it led to your close relationship with Harav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l?

I was born into a secular Israeli family in Kiryat Shalom in south Tel Aviv. My father had actually learned in Ponevezh Yeshivah when he was young but left the yeshivah and became secular after his parents divorced. My mother came from a traditional family but was not religious. When I was 11 years old, my father’s father passed away. One of the bachurim who had learned with my father at Ponevez lived in our neighborhood and convinced him to go to shul to say Kaddish for his father.

My father started going every morning, and after a while, we went together on Shabbos. At the same time, my older sister attended a seminar by the Arachim organization and became incredibly inspired. She came home one day and announced that from now on we were no longer going to turn on lights or watch TV on Shabbos. My parents started keeping Shabbos, but it bothered me a lot, because I was addicted to TV. People ask me all the time where I learned English from, and I tell them it was from TV. 

We weren’t secular one day, and then suddenly we were religious. It was a gradual process. I remember going to the swimming pool directly across the street from the shul on Shabbos. We didn’t want people knowing, so we left shul a few minutes early and took a different route to the pool to avoid seeing anyone from shul.

At what point did you start learning in a religious setting?

There was an elderly man at our shul who gave a Gemara shiur on Shabbos before Minchah. I enjoyed learning Gemara, because it seemed very clever to me. I attended a religious school in Tel Aviv from grades seven to nine. I liked learning Gemara there, because it was intellectually challenging, but I wasn’t interested in the other studies.

When I reached 10th grade, the gabbai of our shul moved. He was also the baal korei, and he convinced me to take over. So, at age 13, I became a gabbai and got a key to the shul. That year, I showed up maybe 10 times at school and spent the rest of the time learning Mishnayos with the Bartenura in shul on my own. I was afraid every evening I returned from shul that my parents would get a call from the school saying I was truant. But they didn’t call. That would never happen today.

How did you bridge the gap between being largely self-taught to being able to adapt to a regular high school yeshivah setting?

It was extremely difficult. My parents ended up getting divorced. Then, when I was 15 years old, my father, who had been a successful businessman, fell in with swindlers in business and was forced to flee the country. I didn’t see him and had minimal contact with him. That whole trauma, together with the fact that my mother was left without any financial means, affected me negatively.

I was in a crisis of sorts when I left the Tel Aviv school and entered a Yerushalayim yeshivah in Telz-Stone, where I stayed for six years. The first three years there, I was depressed and barely learned. At age 18, I started to take life more seriously and decided to study halachah. I learned the Mishnah Berurah from beginning to end and gained a name in yeshivah for being an expert in halachah. Rabbanim in yeshivah would bring halachah she’eilos to me. I looked to join a kollel that concentrated on halachah and was instead encouraged to learn Shas.

By nature, I try to do things as fast as possible and learned 21 pages of Gemara each day. I learned seven pages thoroughly each seder and finished in half a year. The learning took up every minute of the day. I gained chizuk to do all this from the stories I had read of Gedolei Yisrael and sifrei mussar. I took notes on the sifrei mussar at the time. Many years later, I published a sefer called Hatevah Haruchni based on those notes.

How did this background prepare you to become Rav Chaim’s trusted proofreader and editor?

It really stemmed from my persistent lack of funds. I wanted to go to the next level and study different sefarim. All my friends in the yeshivah would constantly buy sefarim, but I couldn’t afford to. I tried to find work that would allow me to stay in yeshivah. One friend told me of a publisher looking for a proofreader. I used to help my father in one of his businesses printing material. My father said I have hawk eyes, because I always found defects. I was offered the job and brought the sefarim to my room in the yeshivah to do the work there. I didn’t become rich, but I started earning money. With every shekel I earned, I bought sefarim.

I also attended a weekly shiur, called Maasei Nora, consisting of stories of Gedolei Yisrael, given by a Rav at the yeshivah named Harav Shmuel Greineman. He’s the son of Harav Shmaryahu Greineman, who edited the sefarim of the Chazon Ish. Because he was a family member of Rav Chaim, 90% of the stories were about Rav Chaim. I was fascinated by them and asked Rav Shmuel to buy me all of Rav Chaim’s sefarim. I paid him, and one day he brought a box full of them to my room. I started with Sefer Derech Emunah. I had he’aros and tikkunim on the sefer and wrote them on its margins.

Several years later, after having married, I joined a kollel that learned Hilchos Shemittah. One of the sefarim we learned regularly was Derech Emunah. I decided to send Rav Chaim a letter with all the he’aros and comments I had. I was sure because of his old age, Rav Chaim would certainly not take the time to reply to a letter from someone unknown like myself.

I was stunned when Rav Chaim sent me a postcard with answers to all my queries. At the top of the postcard, he wrote that he enjoyed my comments and hoped I would continue to write to him. I wrote another letter, and again he replied with the same message.

After four rounds, I decided I wanted to meet the Gadol I was corresponding with. I went to Bnei Brak, arrived after Maariv and waited in line at the kabbalas hakahal. When I finally reached Rav Chaim, he asked me my name. When I replied “Tieger,” he said, “Which Tieger? From the letters?” After I confirmed, he immediately said, “Sit down.” I marvel at it now, because Rav Chaim never asked people for their names.

How did you cultivate the relationship with Rav Chaim, and what was it like to work one-on-one with someone of his stature?

If you wanted to develop a relationship with Rav Chaim, it had to be based on Torah. I started by presenting him with around five tikkunim and he’aros that I found in his sefarim, then 10. They included things like discrepancies between writing an alef in one place and a beis elsewhere. He mamash liked the kind of he’aros I brought him, even though I wasn’t the only one to do so.

Baruch Hashem, the relationship with him grew stronger, until I would come to him with 20 corrections, then 30. After a while he told me not to come during kabbalas hakahal but instead arranged a special time when we sat together on the third floor. Eventually, I consulted with him on my own sefarim. I had an open door, so I used it.

Why were there so many corrections required in the sefarim?

Every sefer needs mazel to be printed properly. It was not Rav Chaim’s fault, but he didn’t have the right proofreader. After a sefer is printed, there are many errors that need to be fixed. Not just marei mekomos or printing errors but also he’aros and stiros and such. I put out a sefer called Nezer Hachaim, consisting entirely of he’aros on Rav Chaim’s sefer Derech Emunah.

I asked Rav Chaim a few times how in one place he writes one thing, and in another he writes the opposite. He answered that 20 or 30 years could elapse from writing one sefer to another, and he couldn’t remember everything.

You mentioned other people who sent in corrections to Rav Chaim. What do you think it was about you specifically that elevated your relationship with him?

If you want the honest answer: it’s siyatta diShmaya. I can’t think of something specific. I can’t find a reason why he liked me more than others. Perhaps the siyatta diShmaya can be attributed to my years in yeshivah. Unlike others who faced challenges in yeshivah and left, I never thought of leaving, despite all my difficulties. I stayed and learned. I feel Hakadosh Baruch Hu repaid me with Rav Chaim. Or maybe because of zechus Avos — I am the great-grandchild of the Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk.

What kind of relationship were you able to sustain with Rav Chaim over the years?

I was Rav Chaim’s proofreader for 20 years; it’s a lot of time. Rav Chaim was like a family member. He came to visit me on Chol Hamoed in my home in Yerushalayim. When I came to him, he would leave everything and tell me to sit with him. It was mamash like a father and son. He became the father I didn’t have.

What are some of your most vivid impressions of Rav Chaim?

First, he was a genius. He knew kol haTorah kulah. Today we have computers and Otzar Hachochmah. But it takes a few seconds to find a Chazal even on the computer. Rav Chaim didn’t need even those few seconds. Without any prompting, he would tell me in an instant, “It’s this tosefta, this perek, this halachah.” The same with referencing obscure sefarim. His yedias haTorah was something phenomenal. All the Gedolei Yisrael agree that there wasn’t someone like him for hundreds of years. There are great talmidei chachamim in Eretz Yisrael bli ayin hara, but for a long time there hasn’t been someone with the yedias haTorah like Rav Chaim. I was fascinated by it.

Secondly, putting aside the geonus and the tzidkus, he was such a good person. He was Russian, and typically Russians are more aloof. It took me years to break the barriers and enter Rav Chaim’s heart, but it was worth it. After he became more open with me, he shared personal things about himself.

Can you give any examples?

For example, if he didn’t feel well, he shared what the doctor said. Or he would share that he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t learn properly. Or he confided that the personal letters he received interfered with him being able to learn normally, because they were time-consuming.

In terms of his nature, as I saw it, Rav Chaim also had an amazing sense of humor. He would reference a passuk for every letter or every name in a clever way. He used every opportunity to insert something humorous into a conversation.

Did you develop a relationship with the rest of the family too?

Yes, over the years we all became close friends. However, my relationship didn’t start with the family. It started with Rav Chaim and with Rav Chaim only. After the family saw how much Rav Chaim liked me, they befriended me too. At first, they didn’t want me in the home at all, because they thought I was bothering the Rav, but when they realized it was the Rav who wanted me to sit with him, their feelings changed.

Did you realize what a zechus you had at the time?

I recognized the zechus because of the stories I heard and read of Rav Chaim, but initially I didn’t realize how monumental the zechus was. Over time, I came to understand it, especially when I saw how Rav Chaim  spoke with each person who came to see him for only a minute yet spent hours and hours with me.

If you can point to one lesson you learned from all your interactions with Rav Chaim, what would it be?

It would be learning from Rav Chaim’s patience. The most important thing in his life was his time. He utilized every second of his life for learning. Despite this, he officially devoted four times a day (during his good years) to kabbalas hakahal — after Vasikin, Minchah, and Maariv and at 10:30 p.m. for half an hour. He also read and responded to at least 80 letters a day and took phone calls from all over the country. He was mafkir himself for Klal Yisrael. Here was a person who was so careful about his time, yet he forfeited his most precious thing to others. This is what I learned from him — not to be selfish. He was incredibly kind.

Do you think Rav Chaim saw this communal role as his tafkid?

Yes. He told me many times that he couldn’t write his own sefarim, because the kabbalas hakahal and his letters took up too much time. I asked him why he didn’t decrease his time on those obligations and concentrate more on his sefarim, since they are neches l’doros and will benefit all of Klal Yisrael for generations to come. He told me so many times, “Rachmanus, the people need to come to me.” His kindness came before his geonus.

Who do you think will be the next Gadol Hador?

Only Hakadosh Baruch Hu can determine who will be Gedolim. Bnei adam can’t decide. The Gemara says that only Hakadosh Baruch Hu determines who the manhig will be. There are some Gedolim we thought would surely be future manhigim, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

It’s been a year and a half since Rav Chaim’s petirah. Do you feel a void, and what do you miss most?

It’s very hard emotionally. Every time I think of the loss, I start to cry. It’s also extremely difficult, because we no longer have Rav Chaim to instantly answer all our questions. Questions of life and death — should I do the surgery or not; should I go through with the shidduch or not. And we knew that whatever Rav Chaim said, it was as if it were written in the Torah. He had ruach hakodesh, and we could rely on it. Today we have no such a person. We have chashuve talmidei chachamim, but we don’t have another Rav Chaim.

This is an eis tzarah for Jews living in Eretz Yisrael and for Jews around the world. How do you think Rav Chaim would have reacted to the October 7th massacre?

If Rav Chaim were alive today, he would be devastated. Rav Chaim’s heart belonged to all of Am Yisrael. I remember many times people asked me to tell Rav Chaim of their troubles to receive advice and brachos. Some of the cases were heartbreaking, especially young people with serious illnesses. When he heard of their suffering, his face would contort with grief, to the extent that I regretted sharing the cases with him.

Rav Chaim once told me he davened to forget some of the things he heard, because otherwise the pain of hearing of Am Yisrael’s suffering would not allow him to concentrate on his studies. If the private pain of an individual so grieved him, he would have been horrified to the depths of his soul by the unbelievable pain of thousands of Jews — children, women, men and the elderly — slaughtered, tortured and kidnapped by the Arab terrorists.

Knowing Rav Chaim as someone who was completely immersed in Torah Shebichsav and Torah Sheb’al Peh and would search the Torah for advice from Chazal, I am convinced he would point to the Gemara in Sanhedrin (98-2) that says, “Mah yaaseh adam v’yinatzel meichevlo shel Moshiach, ya’asok b’Torah ub’gemilus chassadim — What should a person do to be saved from chevlei Moshiach? He should involve himself in Torah and gemilus chessed.” Since Ziknei Yisrael agree ours is the generation of the Ikvesa d’Meshicha, and Rav Chaim used to say that Moshiach is at the door, I think he would have relied on this advice from Chazal to say we must strengthen ourselves in precisely these areas.