Rav Uri Tieger shares never-before details of his 20-year friendship With The Sar HaTorah
Shushan Purim marked one year for the Jewish community without its Sar HaTorah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l. To honor the yahrzeit, I sat down with Rav Uri Tieger at the Project Inspire Convention for a fascinating conversation on his life and recollections of the gadol ha’dor. Incredibly, Rav Tieger was raised in Tel Aviv as a secular Israeli, rising to become one of Rav Chaim’s closest y’didim and a trusted editor of his s’farim. To date, Rav Tieger has published six s’farim on behalf of the Steipler Gaon’s son and has two others in the works.
A current resident of Yerushalayim, life was different early on for young Uri, who was severely impacted by insanity surrounding mass media in the western world widely advertised in the Tel Aviv market where Rav Tieger lived. Television was an overpowering addiction that consumed the naïve youth, who would often spend his Saturday going out for a leisurely swim. All that changed around the time of his bar mitzvah. Rav Tieger’s journey led him to kollel, where he studied Rav Chaim’s Derech Emunah, and focused on the intricate Sh’mitah laws on agriculture in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Tieger had a variety of questions but was reluctant to reach out to the venerable author. Eventually, he gained the courage to make contact, launching a lifelong friendship. In typical Rav Chaim fashion, a comment-laden postcard response arrived addressing each concern. However, the note began with a personal message to the effect that Rav Chaim greatly enjoyed the correspondence and requested that Rav Tieger continue the dialogue. After four such exchanges, Rav Tieger decided that it was time to meet the face behind the words and planned a trip to the famous Bnei Brak study and home of the gadol.
Rav Uri’s first-ever visit to Rav Chaim came following his marriage and after years of learning his s’farim. On the chosen day, Rav Tieger joined the infamous line following Maariv, awaiting his chance to greet Rav Chaim amongst the rush of followers who stood with Rav Uri shoulder-to-shoulder. A half hour later, the opportunity finally arrived. Rav Tieger gave Rav Chaim his name, to which the Rav responded, “Which Tieger? The one from the letters?” Rav Uri answered in the affirmative, and Rav Chaim asked him to sit down, beginning the first of hundreds of extended visits spanning a two-decade period. Rav Tieger’s aide shared several impactful videos depicting the unexpected chavrusashaft.
Becoming Rav Chaim’s personal proofreader did not happen with just one meeting. First, Rav Tieger offered ten corrections, then 20, and so on, until the position became official. “Every sefer that Rav Chaim wanted to print or reprint a new addition for his previous s’farim, he told me to go over this sefer, review it, and put down all the mistakes to prepare it for printing,” explained Rav Tieger. Still, the trust had to be built. “Rav Chaim would take every correction and open himself the source sefer, the Gemara, the Midrash, or Chazon Ish, and I would watch him share that my observations were accurate.” After a few years of these interactions, the Prince of Torah’s demeanor shifted. “Rav Chaim began to trust me more and insert my corrections more readily.”
Rav Uri discussed the friendship unbeknownst to Rav Chaim’s immediate family and the Jewish public that clung to the gadol’s every syllable. “The relationship was mamash personal. It’s not just to work on s’farim and that was all. It was hours and hours, hundreds of hours, that we sat together and talked in learning on Torah topics.” Like most yeshivah-minded chavrusos, Rav Chaim and Rav Tieger spoke of familial matters. “Rav Chaim took an interest in my personal life and discussed his own personal affairs.” While the details of these conversations will not be published, knowledge of their existence is paramount, as they humanize the dominant Torah sage of this generation, a man who Rav Tieger readily admits had ruach ha’kodesh, Hashem’s divine influence over the universe and His creations. These friendly encounters included discussion of Rav Chaim’s medical conditions and current state of health, conversations one only shares with his closest friends and family members.
In 2006, as Rav Chaim recovered from a stroke in the hospital, Rav Tieger came to be m’vaker choleh. “Rebbetzin Batsheva was engrossed in a conversation with another woman, and I took the opportunity to slip inside the hospital room where Rav Chaim was recovering. The Rebbetzin saw me and approached to stop me from moving further.” Rav Chaim was awake and held off the Rebbetzin’s concern, with an astonishing choice of language: “Let him be; he is my friend.” When asked to characterize Rav Chaim based on his experiences, Rav Tieger spoke of the hordes of followers who flocked to the gadol’s door. “His patience for people was something amazing. Every day, regularly, there were 500 people, at least, who visited the Kanievsky residence, taking up much of the Rav’s time.” Like Rav Chaim’s choice of words, his time held similar value, often opting to miss simchos and meetings in lieu of learning. “Something like 20 percent of these 500 visitors asked the same question again and again.” This repetition never upset the sage, according to Rav Tieger, who noticed Rav Chaim’s facial expressions indicating the query was still being discussed. Even when the same individual was persistent on a halachic issue, Rav Chaim always maintained his composure. It should be noted that Rav Chaim’s “buha,” shortened for brachah v’hatzlachah, response was widely given outside of halachic inquiries when one sought a blessing or advice.
At Rav Chaim’s hesped in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Tieger disclosed a personal account. When a couple is expecting, a gender revealing test that falls within the confines of halachah is often conducted. When asked if one should undergo this test, Rav Chaim typically advised against.
When the Tiegers were once expecting, Rav Uri invited Rav Chaim to Yerushalayim to be the sandek should they have a son. This was a practice that Rav Chaim often took on and once again readily accepted. Rav Tieger clarified, “I am not just asking the Rav to be sandek; I want the Rav to stay for the seudah.” In his polite refusal, Rav Chaim mentioned his time constraints and learning schedule. Rav Tieger pushed onward, “I deserve more. I sit with the Rav and prepare his s’farim.” Rav Chaim contemplated the request and finally raised his eyes, saying, “You know what, you are going to have a daughter.” While this response affirmed Rav Chaim’s divine connection as no gender test was conducted, it also brought forward the notion of having a stitch of chutzpah when dealing with Torah matters.
I asked Rav Tieger to impart a final anecdote depicting Rav Chaim’s prized characteristics. When spelling the Kanievsky surname in Lashon Kodesh, two yuds typically follow the nun in Israeli media. Rav Tieger divulged, “The original name and how Rav Chaim penned his own name was with just one yud.” Rav Chaim once spoke of this inconsistency with Rav Tieger, explaining that a major article ran in Eretz Yisrael after the Steipler’s p’tirah with the incorrect spelling, but he never made a public statement in an effort not to defame the writer. (Similarly, Reb Yankie Meyer z”l, the founder of Misaskim, spelled his first name as written. Early on, media used the spelling Yanky; however, the humble askan never requested a change so as not to bring any shame.)
It is our hope that these words bring solace to our readership and to klal Yisrael, still coping with the loss of our rebbe.
Y’hi zichro baruch!
By Shabsie Saphirstein