R. Hayim Kanievsky—full name, Shmaryahu Yosef Hayim Kanievsky—is an exceptional rabbinic personality. More than any other rabbinic figure he is considered a sort of Chasidic rebbe for Litvish (“Yeshivish,” non-Chasidic) Jewry; multitudes come to receive his blessing, hear his advice, and ask him to pray for them and theirs. He also plays a pivotal role within haredi society: while he may not be the single supreme religious authority for Litvish Jewry, he is considered, together with R. Gershon Edelstein, as one of its main leaders. In haredi society, especially in the Litvish sector, R. Kanievsky is known as “the prince of Torah,” (Sar haTorah) and he is quite often referred to with the combination “our master, the prince of Torah.” Litvish Jews famously reserve the honorific “our master” (maran) for outstanding leaders of the generation. His past support for R. Aharon Leib Shteinman significantly helped establish the latter’s authority, and R. Kanievsky continued to throw his full weight behind R. Shteinman whenever the need arose.
Above all, R. Kanievsky is a consummate halakhist with complete mastery over the entire breadth and depth of rabbinic literature. It was his four-volume work Derekh Emunah, a commentary on the agricultural laws in Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and his other works of Torah scholarship, that first won him recognition. Aside from these mainstream works, R. Kanievsky also authors responsa on every single aspect of Torah imaginable. His answers are brief in the extreme, typically a single line, and often limited to one word.
R. Hayim Kanievsky was born in 1928 to R. Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler, who would become the prominent leader of Litvish Jewry throughout the 1960s and remained a paragon long after. He is also a nephew of R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the Hazon Ish; a son-in-law of the late R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv; and his daughter married the son of the aforementioned R. Shteinman, who led the predominant wing of the Litvish community until his passing in December 2017. He was born in Poland, studied in the Lomza yeshiva, and was conscripted by the Israeli Defense Forces during the War of Independence. He learned for many years in the Hazon Ish’s kolel and was considered one of the few to be carrying on his uncle’s legacy.
Already in his youth R. Kanievsky was a byword for nonstop devotion to Torah study and renowned for his erudition. When on the advice of his physicians he was forced to go to the beach to take in the sea air and so improve his breathing, he would go with his study partner and keep his head buried in books.
R. Kanievsky has been answering questions by postcard for many years. I do not know quite how it works today, but in the past the following was commonly reported to be his practice. Every Wednesday, he would sequester himself in one of the rooms in his house with a pile of letters he had received that week and a similar-sized stack of blank postcards. In the morning, he would begin answering questions in his tiny handwriting and would not leave the room until he had finished responding to every single letter. As his stature has grown and more and more people have heard about his unwavering commitment to answer every question received, the stream of questions has become a flood, making it likely that his practice has changed. In any event, this was his custom for many years. Many of these postcard responsa have been printed. Some of them have been published in dedicated books (Doleh Umashkeh, Da’at Notah, Sheelat Rav, and Shut haGerah) and booklets (Gam Ani Odkha), which occasionally include editors’ elucidations and interpretations, indicating sources and sometimes noting the questions arising therefrom. A substantial number of responsa also have been printed in books written, mostly, by second-tier rabbis and Torah scholars, who decided to include R. Kanievsky’s responsa on topics they discussed. In my estimation, if we were to comb through all of these different types of publications in their various formats and count the responsa—and I am only talking about those in print and not the countless originals in circulation—we would find that they number in the tens of thousands. R. Kanievsky answers everyone who writes him except women, because like his father he will not see female visitors and, it is widely believed, will not even read their handwriting. He left the task of answering questions posed by women to his wife, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, and then upon her passing to his daughter, Rebbetzin Leah Kolodetsky.
R. Hayim Kanievsky is a living legend. Newspaper articles and internet blurbs track his activities, haredi paparazzi photograph his every gesture, and those who have met him at different periods of his life relate hagiographical stories about him. But above and beyond all of this is his role as a kind of modern-day Urim and Thummim, to whom (almost) anyone can send a question about anything and expect to receive an answer. R. Kanievsky is venerated not only because he can respond to so many questions, but because he does so in spite of his advanced age of 90 and unstable state of health, which reflects his respect for every Jew and his paternal concern not to leave even a single Jew beset by doubt.
R. Kanievsky’s responsa are extremely laconic and frequently consist of no more than a single word: “prohibited” or “permitted”; “yes” or “no” or “perhaps”; and so on. Sometimes a responsum will point to a source for the questioner to examine, which should supply the answer to his question. “Perhaps” is not a rare response at all.
Allow me to cite a few randomly selected examples, which are representative but of course are by no means quantitatively exhaustive. When R. Kanievsky was asked if pocket lint should be considered an object that one is prohibited to move on the Sabbath, which would require people to shake out their pockets before the Sabbath’s onset, he responded with one word: “perhaps.” If someone has a few keys on a keyring and needs one of them on the Sabbath, would searching through them one by one until the desired one is found be considered a violation of the Sabbath prohibition against sorting (borer)? R. Kanievsky responded with a one-word acronym, which when expanded means “this requires some further research.” Another question: “We have found that people refer in writing to a number of exceptional masters of Torah as hagaon haeloki (the heavenly gaon) […] What is the rule about when we write [so] and when we do not?” The answer: “I don’t know.”
Does a Hebrew abecedary have any sanctity with respect to placing it on the floor and the like? The answer: “maybe.” A placard is posted at a cemetery which announces, “It is prohibited for kohanim (priests) to enter”—since this is a kind of halakhic instruction, does it require genizah (burial)? The answer: “maybe.” And what about food packaging bearing the words “Its blessing is mezonot,” does it require burial? The answer: “maybe.” If someone has a spot in line, do they have to stand there until it is their turn or can they leave and return later? The answer: “maybe.” If a person suspects a friend of something but does not verbalize the suspicion, must that person’s forgiveness be sought? “Maybe.” This even applies to questions about practices rooted in superstition: “Is there any basis to the rumor that if someone eats a salted omelette it will be detrimental to his memory?” R. Hayim responds: “We haven’t heard [of it].” Should one refrain from placing objects under one’s bed so that an evil spirit does not affect them? The answer: “We haven’t heard [of it].” And there are many more in this vein.
When I was writing my doctorate on the Hazon Ish, there were a few times when I found the preeminent decisor’s opinions difficult to swallow. I unhesitatingly wrote to R. Kanievsky and without fail received a small postcard bearing an answer within a few days. Most of the time, he referred me to a source in which he thought I would find the answer I sought. I recall that the first time I received a postcard from him it looked blank, which left me confused. I turned it over from one side to the other and kept flipping it back and forth for a few minutes, until I finally noticed microscopic letters located right next to the edge, in which the answer was written out in a handful of words. Another time, I asked him a complex question about the Hazon Ish’s rationale for prohibiting the use of electricity on the Sabbath, to which he responded: “When you are in Bnei-Brak, be so kind as to enter (=to visit).” Such is R. Kanievsky’s practice when a difficult question could not be done justice in a few words. The postcard, in effect, was an invitation to meet him at his usual spot—a nondescript seat in the Kolel Hazon Ish in Bnei-Brak.
R. Kanievsky did not only receive questions about Halakhah. From his published responsa, we can observe readily that numerous people asked him questions ranging across all areas of the Torah. He often has been asked questions about the interpretation of Scriptural verses, which he answers patiently, and sometimes in even greater length than in his halakhic responsa. So, for example, R. Dovid Asher Meyers, the American haredi author of Melekhet Hamishkan Vekelav (The Tabernacle and its Vessels), asked R. Kanievsky countless questions about the shape of the Tabernacle’s implements, some of them accompanied by diagrams, and R. Kanievsky answered them all with his characteristic patience and diligence.
R. Shlomo Cohen is a haredi author who was particularly troubled by the episode of Nadav and Avihu, about whom he wrote an entire book that tries to explain their sin while maintaining their good intentions. Still, his mind was not at ease until he sent his ideas to R. Kanievsky, whose responses he later published in a booklet that reproduces images of R. Kanievsky’s own handwritten answers. After pages of the author’s lengthy, detailed exposition, we find the sharply contrasting, brief responses of R. Kanievsky: “nice,” “nice,” “maybe,” “obviously,” and “true.”
One author wrote to R. Kanievsky to find out his opinion about using autistic children as a medium for communing with spirits, because some elements within the haredi community viewed such children as having some form of divine inspiration, a view quite prevalent a number of years ago. He responded decisively: “Utter nonsense.” At the same time, he demonstrated great affection for traditional charms, especially those that appear in Rabbinic literature. Naturally, he also received halakhic questions relating to the ideology of Orthodox Jewry (hashkafah): “When people write ‘Herzl St.’ or ‘Jabotinsky St.’ or the like, which were named for witting sinners, does one need to add the words ‘may the name of the wicked rot’ or its Hebrew acronym (this doubt applying to their verbalization as well), or is there no such obligation?” R. Kanievsky responded, “No need.” As an aside, the individual posing the question, who published these responsa with his own explanations, challenged R. Kanievsky’s answer from various sources.
R. Kanievsky is not the first decisor to keep his responsa short. Geonic responsa were sometimes quite brief, as were many responsa written by R. Asher b. Yechiel (Rosh). R. Shlomo Kluger wrote a book of many short responsa titled Haelef Lekha Shlomo. R. Yosef Hayim Sonnenfeld also gave laconic answers, which his admiring correspondent R. Shlomo Sobel gathered and published as a collection of responsa called Salmat Hayim. This list could go on, but a number of factors sets R. Kanievsky’s responsa apart from the rest. First of all, their degree of brevity. R. Kanievsky makes an art out of brevity, crafting record-breakingly short responsa. Second, their reasoning, or rather lack thereof. Even decisors-in-brief go to the trouble of supplying some soupçon of reasoning with their rulings. While R. Kanievsky does refer his questioners to halakhic sources on occasion, he usually does so for more theoretical, analytical questions; for those questions requiring a practical ruling, he rules without providing justification. Third, their scope. R. Kanievsky fields questions on anything Torah-related, whereas other decisors respond almost exclusively to halakhic questions, and if they do respond to other sorts of questions, they largely do not view their responses as fit for publication.
Finally, we come to the nature of R. Kanievsky’s rulings. R. Kanievsky responds even when he does not know or has doubts. Other decisors generally compose a responsum only if they have a definitive answer. It is probable that they do not achieve crystal clarity in many cases, but in this instance, too, they do not publish such responsa (because what, indeed, is the benefit of having a decisor say “I don’t know”?). These final two points pertain less to any intentional innovation on the part of R. Kanievsky and more to the formation of a new sub-genre of responsa literature to which his responsa have given rise. Sometimes, the entity responsible for creating such literature is not the rabbinic decisor himself but those who collect and publish his responsa.
These responsa were in no way responsible for propelling R. Kanievsky to greatness, and they certainly did not contribute to his being esteemed as “the prince of Torah.” In fact, had they been published earlier in his career as a Torah scholar, no one would have paid them any mind. It was precisely because he earned his reputation based on his scholarly writing, which showcased his first-rate analytical prowess, that his responsa become accepted. This trajectory could not be more different from that of other leading halakhists.
Compare R. Kanievsky to R. Moshe Feinstein, who became the decisor of the generation for American Jewry starting in the ’50s. R. Feinstein’s impressive stature was mostly founded on his responsa, which were published in his multivolume Iggerot Moshe. Many years would pass before his Talmudic lectures were published, and to this day they are not nearly as well known. It was his responsa that demonstrated his expertise as a halakhist: his command of the sources, his ability to generate innovative ideas, his skill in deciding hard cases. These responsa focused on Halakhah and Halakhah alone; he left discussion of non-halakhic matters for other books, which were also printed in his later years and outside the framework of his responsa literature.
By contrast, one can find responsa penned by R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on almost every conceivable topic, ranging from individual issues to communal ones, from faith to law. His preeminence did not flow from any book of his; he was endowed with it when he assumed the mantle of Chabad leadership from his predecessor and father-in-law R. Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. R. Schneerson was not a halakhic decisor but a rebbe, so it comes as no surprise that he responded to questions that were formally beyond the purview of Halakhah, yet such answers were not reserved for his hasidic followers alone—they were addressed to non-hasidic Jews too. While he did write long letters that contained explanations of his positions in fine detail, he also wrote short, even laconic, ones, which were generally intended for his hasidic following and dealt with simple questions of practice. Even among those, however, we never find a responsum bearing a practical ruling that is one or two words long. Despite his practically incontestable authority among his followers, the Lubavitcher Rebbe felt it proper to provide more than just the halakhic bottom line. In his halakhic responsa, he almost always dove in the details of an issue and buttressed his argument with supporting sources.
One can continue comparing R. Kanievsky to legendary decisors of generations past, but I do not think we will find any truly similar figures. He presents us with a genuinely novel phenomenon in the annals of Halakhah. What does it mean and what can we learn from it?
Over the 20th century, Litvish Jewry, previously Hasidism’s fiercest opponent, developed a doctrine strikingly similar to the hasidic notion of the saintly rebbe, the tzaddik. This doctrine is termed Da’as Torah, whose central claim was formulated by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Hafetz Hayim, as follows: “Whoever’s knowledge is the knowledge of the Torah (da’at Torah) can solve all of the problems in the world, for the individual and for the collective.” The Hafetz Hayim and others declared that the Torah has an answer not only for patently halakhic questions but for those arising from the marketplace of life. The Hafetz Hayim himself, though, referred to “the Torah’s counsel” (‘atzat haTorah), which is not necessarily binding but benefits its followers. He thought that anyone who delves into the Torah honestly and without any preconceived notions can discover this counsel.
The Hafetz Hayim’s disciple, R. Elhanan Wasserman, transformed this “counsel” into a normative obligation and restricted the authority to speak in the name of Da’as Torah to the greatest Torah scholars of the age, the gdoilim. He considered the obligation to obey Da’as Torah to be the unspoken implication of the Biblical command of “Thou shalt not deviate” (Deut 17:11), the law that one must obey the supreme rabbinic legislative body known as the Sanhedrin. According to him, the gdoilim who dedicate their lives to Torah are the only people who contemplate Torah—to the exclusion of everything else—day and night, day in and day out; they do not let their mind wander to the street or even to their home. With this began the “halakhization” of Da’as Torah, which particularly intensified after the Holocaust.
The Hazon Ish, R. Kanievsky’s uncle, negated the notion that one could expect to receive a manifest blessing in this world by obeying Torah scholars. One must heed the guidance of gdoilim in all aspects of life the same way one must obey their halakhic rulings. Keeping the Sabbath is the fulfillment of God’s will and holds no promise of the good life in this world, and the same is true of following what the rabbis pronounce as the product of their Da’as Torah. His contemporary, R. Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rov, expressed a similar idea. In this way, the doctrine of Da’as Torah blurred the lines between rulings on halakhic matters and rulings about everything else in life. The range of topics treated by R. Kanievsky provides evidence of yet another stage in this breakdown of boundaries between the halakhic and the non-halakhic. Like rulings propounded as Da’as Torah, R. Kanievsky does not see the need to provide the reasoning behind his decisions. Despite his omission of supporting sources, his responsa are understood to constitute a form of halakhic ruling that demands complete compliance. That is how most of his questioners take them, in any case.
Looking beyond the innovation of the greatly expanded scope of these responsa, there is something else new about them. While there have always been short responsa that present themselves as the final word, as I noted earlier, these responsa have become part of a genre. Once upon a time, R. Kanievsky’s corpus of responsa was a unique specimen, but today it is no longer the only one of its kind. In haredi society, similar corpuses of responsa have appeared in connection with other decisors, such as R. Yosef Lieberman (author of Mishnat Kesef), and we see a parallel phenomenon in the Religious Zionist sector, especially its Hardal (Zionist-haredi) branch, of SMS or Internet Responsa.
In contrast to the latter, which sprung up and flourished thanks to modern technology, R. Kanievsky’s method of handling queries remains as low-tech as possible. Yet everyone knows about it and many avail themselves of it. Today, his postcard responsa are being published in book format, either on their own or as appendices to other works. When this fact is placed alongside the growing publication of SMS and Internet Responsa, we can see that the traditional Jewish library must make space for a new genre of halakhic literature whose genesis we are witnessing. While this literature of instant responsa is not by any means displacing the classical responsa literature, it has a very noticeable profile in the day-to-day interface of the public with Halakhah and so at times overshadows the classical literature somewhat. In the history of Halakhah, this is completely unprecedented.
Why are people so interested in these responsa? To state the obvious, the rapid, nearly instantaneous response is its main attraction, and the anonymity, which cannot be maintained in approaching a communal rabbi, is liberating—people can ask whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. But I sense something deeper at work here. Critics of instant responsa argue that the skyrocketing number of questions emerges from people’s unwillingness to think for themselves; they would rather outsource the intellectual labor to rabbis. But this is not necessarily the correct assessment of the phenomenon. I think that we are not observing widespread intellectual laziness so much as a desire for decisive answers in an age when one can find every possible answer to any dilemma.
Yet, the rabbis to whom they turn have received their training in the study of Halakhah, whose discourse is primarily formalistic, and so they cannot always provide the kind of definitive answer desired. It is not only R. Kanievsky’s replies of uncertainty—“maybe,” “possibly,” “further research is required”—that reflect this, but also many other instances where he avoids stating outright “prohibited” or “permitted” and instead offers a recommendation. He usually recommends adopting a strict posture, which I like to call “soft stringency,” and which has ample precedents in traditional halakhic literature. Phrases like “better to be stringent,” “better to be wary,” “one ought to refrain,” “best not to,” etc. are excellent examples of this. In this literature we also find expressions of “soft leniency,” that is, a move in the direction of leniency rather than a wholehearted espousal of it: “it’s possible to rely on this to be lenient,” “they are accustomed to be lenient about this,” and so forth. A careful, if non-statistical, examination of R. Kanievsky’s instant responsa, and also those of Rabbis Shlomo Aviner and Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief respondents of Israel’s SMS responsa, reveals that the incidence of “soft” formulations in these corpuses is exponentially higher than in the traditional responsa literature.
We can see, then, that halakhic norms undergo “softening” and become less formalistic. Not all of them are affected, of course, because formalistic halakhic discourse remains at full strength, but these attenuated norms are admitted into the study hall and are free to mingle with the rest of the halakhic corpus. Therefore, the broadening of Halakhah’s purview, so lamented by critics as unwelcome and even dangerous, did introduce halakhah’s unyielding casts into non-halakhic aspects of life, but at the same time it also allowed soft norms to penetrate the tough core of halakhic life and the responsa literature itself.
Now, if a decisor does not draw his authority from the formalistic norms at his disposal, on what is it, in fact, based? The answer is that it is rooted in his person. In instant responsa, the what is less important than the who. To borrow the terminology of Prof. Hanina Ben-Menachem, a gradual transition is occurring from a “law governed by rules” to a “law governed by men.” I am not claiming that this change will be absolute, for the traditional halakhic literature remains as robust as ever, but we are seeing a few steps in that direction.
This type of authority presents a paradox. Ultimately, not just anyone qualifies to be an “instant decisor”; the only ones worthy of the position have acquired their authority and renown based on their mastery of traditional halakhic literature, that is, formalistic halakhic literature! This acute paradox, however, disappears upon further examination. A famous underlying justification for the Da’as Torah doctrine is that the halakhic personality internalizes not only the text of the Torah but also its spirit. Only by virtue of his intensive study of Talmud and codes does he become attuned to it, and by functioning as its receiver, so to speak, he is fit to render decisions even where the Torah itself is textually silent. Sociologically speaking, this prerequisite ensures that instant responsa, which looks like it could turn into a runaway train, remains firmly on the track of the traditional rabbinate.
A pessimist might disdain instant responsa as the veneer of halakhic discourse without its substance, as an invitation to arbitrary, oracular determinations, as a vector causing its spread to areas ostensibly out of halakhic bounds. Someone more optimistic might judge it rather more favorably and view it as a welcome increase in transparency, an “unmasking” of the existing halakhic process, which actually is much less formalistic than it seems or is presented, and as an internalization, to some degree, of academic criticism, which often searches for the non-formalistic reasoning underlying the formalistic ruling of a given halakhist. Perhaps we don’t sense this presently because the Torah world is not always exposed to academic scholarship, but the more the phenomenon of instant responsa grows, the more those inside the study hall, or at least those belonging to the circles immediately outside it, will come to reflect on it. They will realize that a decisor may come to a determination based on formalistic juridical rules, but there is still quite a bit of flexibility. In that case, when it comes down to it, a decisor does not decide on sources alone but on the intuition emerging from his Da’as Torah—not some arbitrary feeling but an intuition acquired by internalizing the spirit of the Torah that lies beyond its text.
In the 20th century, American law underwent an interesting transformation that can perhaps shed light on developments in 21st-century Halakhah. Until the beginning of the previous century, American courts were dominated by an approach that is today termed, with more than a hint of irony, “the Grand Style.” This approach greatly privileged formalistic rules, and sought to couch every juridical decision in terms of a grand, elegant structure constructed through deductive reasoning. In the 1920s and ’30s a rival approach rose to prominence that was a kind of critical reaction to the Grand Style. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and a series of academics, the most famous of whom was Karl N. Llewellyn, criticized formalism more generally and its grandiloquence in particular. They sought to eliminate the pretentiousness and pompousness of this approach and preferred to view the law as an aggregate of various factors that shape a judge’s ruling. These include formalistic rules, but also moral and even social or cultural values, which are admittedly subjective. This school is known today as American Legal Realism. This approach changed, among other things, the written character of judicial rulings. Long-winded documents filled with complex and impressive structures were replaced by short, to-the-point rulings, reporting what the judge really thought about the case sub judice. The school of American Realism eventually fell from favor and was replaced by newer jurisprudential theories, but a number of them still retain its critical consciousness.
The realist, minimalist mindset appears to threaten law’s prestige, and by extension its authority, but that is not necessarily the case. The American legal system did not suffer disastrous upheavals in the wake of realism. We would do well to remember that in the United States the legal system is enforced by the government, which is not the case with Halakhah. Nevertheless, Halakhah continues to disprove the many doomsayers who said it would not survive the crisis of modernity and secularization. Are we seeing the inception of halakhic realism? I think it depends on, among other things, the relative weight assigned to instant responsa in the overall system of Halakhah. If these responsa do change the face of Halakhah in the eyes of its decisors and the public, then an additional paradox will materialize: that which originally was feared to be tainting halakhah with a “prophetic” spirit will turn out to be infusing it with a rationalist, critical realism.
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniel Tabak.
Benjamin Brown is a professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.