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Section: Stories   Category: Gedolim Biographies
The Steipler Gaon - The Fiery Determination Of Novhardok

Everyone has their own portrait of each Gadol they have come across.  The following story of Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, is what comes to mind every time his name is mentioned. When he was drafted into in the Russian Army and Shabbos approached he marched right into his commander's office and let it be known that he would not be Michalel Shabbos.  The officer was so taken aback by the unprecedented chutzpah and suicidal gambit of this new recruit that he said he would allow him to keep Shabbos if he agreed to one condition.  In a continuation of his stubbornness the Steipler said he doesn't even have to tell him what he has in mind because the answer is yes, he agrees.  

Okay said the officer, in that case since you will give more work to your co-soldiers they will have the privilege of beating you to their hearts content.  Despite knowing the viciousness of these young strong men and their anti-Semitism the Steipler not only happily accepted this savage near death beating but he said that he carried these special moments with him for the rest of his life and was never able to do anything that could recapture or repeat the life that it pumped into his broken body.  This was the way the Steipler approached every mitzva opportunity, Kala K'Chamura.

The Steipler was born in Hornesteipel, 1899 after his father Rav Chaim Peretz, a 60 year old widower, received a bracha from the Hornesteipel Rebbe, a son-in-law of Rav Chaim of Sanz (Divrei Chaim), that if he remarries he would be zocheh to a son, after only having daughters.  His father was a shochet and a great Masmid and Yiras Shamayim, and his young mother great tzadeikes.  Together they had three sons the oldest being, Rav Yaakov Yisroel.  In his youth Rav Yaakov Yisroel contracted a life threatening typhus, although he managed to survived, it caused permanent damage to his hearing.

After learning torah from his father in his early years, at age 10 his father sent him to Kremenchug to learn in a Talmud Torah organized by talmidim of Yeshivas Slabodka.  A year later his father was niftar.  He was recalled home to be with his broken mother, but when a contingent from Yeshivas Novhardok came to the town to recruit on behalf of the Alter of Novhardok Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, his mother jumped at the opportunity to send her 11 year old son away from poverty to a place where he can fulfill his only dream of learning torah and be provided with food at the same time.

At age 19 Rav Yaakov Yisroel was sent to Rogatchov to open a branch in the Novhardok network of Yeshivos which spanned Russia.  It was during this time that he was drafted into the Russian Army to fight in the Bolshevik revolution.  Many stories exist regarding his unyielding determination to keep the mitzvos.

After he was freed from the army, the situation in Russia for the Jews deteriorated to the point where talmidim were sneaking across the border on a steady basis.  This was a very dangerous undertaking and being caught could be fatal.  When Rav Yaakov Yisroel's turn came they were to be smuggled by a farmer who divided up the group among various family members.  Rav Yaakov Yisroel was sent with the farmers daughter.  Worrying about being alone with her, Yichud, he ran away straight into the arms of the Russians.  He was jailed but soon managed to escape.  

On his next attempt he needed to stop to relieve himself.  Despite that he could have waited until he crossed and his group refused to wait, he broke off from his group and missed his turn not wanting to violate the aveira of Ba'al Tishaktzu.  During his next attempt it was mincha time and he didn't want to miss the Zman.  He went to a quiet place in the forest to daven and after spending much time speaking to his creator oblivious to the whole world, when he finished he realized his group had long gone.  Lost in the forest he started wandering until he found himself next to a Bais Medrash.  When he asked someone where he was they told him he was in Slutzk, Poland.  He had finally made across the border!


From there he went to learn in Bialystock under Rav Avrohom Yoffen, a son-in-law of the Alter.  He published his first Sefer in 1924 and then word of his greatness in torah spread.  The Chazon Ish who was then already in Bnei Brak suggested Rav Yaakov Yisroel for his sister, whom he eventually married, after seeing his sefer Shaarei Tvuna that was published in 1925.  He then went to become Rosh Yeshiva in the Novhardok branch in Pinsk.  In 1934 he moved to Eretz Yisroel and settled in Bnei Brak, the town of his brother-in-law the Chazon Ish.

The Steipler Gaon spent the rest of his life shunning the limelight, despite being the unofficial successor of his brother-in-law the Chazon Ish upon his petira in 1953.  He spent most of his time in his modest surroundings learning torah.  Such greatness cannot be kept a secret and an audience with him was priceless for the throngs who came to learn from him, ask him questions, seek his advice, and receive his bracha.  His was a role model of uncompromising determination in Kiyum of each and every one of the Taryag HaMitzvos.  His torah is treasured by Bnei Torah across the globe.  Most of all, to many of us, his fiery image and example is forever etched in the forefront of our minds.  

The Steipler Gaon returned his holy Neshama to its Maker on 23 Av, 5745/1985.  It is said that 200,000 people attended his Levaya, the then largest ever in Bnei Brak.  Boruch Yehi Zichro!

RELATED ARTICLES:biography  Novhardok  Russia  Steipler Gaon

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Visitor Comments: 1

pw, bet shemesh, 2014-01-13 03:04:03
The Chazon Ish was in Vilna in the twenties. He did not move to Bnei Brak until 1933.

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