It is difficult for an outsider to understand. Secular Jews (like me) look at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky last Sunday and marvel at the magnitude of the event – of the fortitude and unmediated power of one man over so many. Rabbi Kanievsky had no formal role. His personality and devotion to Torah study made him a spiritual authority over a huge community.

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It is possible to dismiss the largest gathering to take place in Israel by simply stating that “this is just how it is with the ultra-Orthodox,” but it misses something. What, after all, attracts over a million people to come and pay their last respects to a single influential individual in Torah?

Rabbi Kanievsky did not conquer space like Elon Musk, may not have made billions like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and he didn’t carefully construct tweets that earned a thousand likes. Nor did he publicize his image in any way through media publications or reality shows. He studied Torah, hosted people in his humble home in Bnei Brak, and blessed the “common people.”

Large queues sometimes lingered outside his door; people wanted his blessing. They wanted his support in difficult moments in life, and he gave it to them. “He was a special person, he answered to everyone,” said a follower, who came to the rabbi's house on the eve of the funeral, “even to children.”

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Rabbi Kanievsky died at the age of 94, and it is said that every year he read the entire Torah – each and every book – including the Zohar, the Gemara, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Tosafot. He was able to do this by meticulously planning what he would read at each hour of every day.

In recent years, in order to reduce the duration of blessings to those looking for guidance and have time to read the Torah, he shortened his blessings to acronyms. Instead of “bracha v’hatzlacha” (a blessing and success) he said only “BOH.” He wanted to accept everyone.

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During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rabbi was criticized. With the outbreak of the virus, he ruled that Torah study was more important than the restrictions against it and that educational institutions should remain open. After ten days, following an outbreak of the virus, he reneged on this. He later instructed each person to be vaccinated.

As the days passed, the Israeli education system came to echo his declaration – education is essential. The Minister of Education and the Government of Israel demanded that the schools be left open throughout the school year, even when the wave of Omicron rose.

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Rabbi Kanievsky did not take advantage of his status in order to accumulate property and wealth. It is said that until his last day he slept on a simple wooden bed. A bridge connects his house to the beit midrash (a hall dedicated to Torah study) in which he studied. This modesty is perhaps the ultra-Orthodox man’s greatest rebellion in today’s dominant economy and culture.

To the capitalist outside observer, giving up a materialist life to study Torah seems like a confusing mystery, something that is hard to believe is possible. But Rabbi Kanievsky, beloved by ultra-Orthodox society, a person who was also a symbol for many outside that very society, did precisely this in his humble lifestyle.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Jonathan Epstein.