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Sick with COVID, top ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in worsening condition

Diagnosed last week, 92-year-old said continuing daily routine even as he spikes a fever, with doctor warning he is now in ‘second, dangerous phase of the disease’

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The condition of one of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis began to worsen on Friday, a week after he contracted the coronavirus.

Family members said that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, had spiked a fever and developed other unspecified symptoms overnight, and that his doctor had said he was now in a “second, dangerous phase of the disease.”

However, a statement on the rabbi’s behalf said Kanievsky was feeling good and continuing his daily routine as usual. A photo was also released of him studying Torah at his home.

Kanievsky is a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli lawmakers issued statements wishing the rabbi a speedy recovery.

“I join the mass prayers of the people of Israel for the health of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky,” Netanyahu tweeted.

Kanievsky was diagnosed with the virus just two days after the Haaretz daily reported that he violated quarantine, hosting visitors at his home in Bnei Brak following Yom Kippur, despite being required to self-isolate due to his exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent weeks. Though many in the community are keeping to guidelines, a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates, with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average. Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of the Sukkot holiday, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.

At the start of the pandemic, Kanievsky faced intense criticism for his handling of the crisis.

He made headlines on March 12 when, despite appeals from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israel Police, he insisted that yeshivas and schools remain open in defiance of government calls to close them, handing down a ruling stating that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.” At the time, there were 200 active coronavirus cases in the country and no deaths.

He changed course two weeks later, as the infections climbed to hundreds daily and as his hometown of Bnei Brak saw widespread infection. On March 29, he ordered his followers to pray individually rather than in group services and wrote that those who violated social-distancing and health rules, endangering others, are akin to murderers in the eyes of Jewish law and may be reported to the Israeli authorities.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is greeted by followers at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020, as he is shielded by a screen to protect him from the coronavirus. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Kanievsky was quoted by an online news report in early September as seemingly encouraging yeshiva students not to get tested for the virus, earning sharp criticism from Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu. Gamzu later apologized, saying the quotes attributed to the top ultra-Orthodox rabbi were misleading, apparently confirming a report in the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine that said the rabbi had not been referring to a blanket policy, but rather was ruling on specific circumstances regarding students who had been tested two weeks prior and who had since been isolated in study “capsules.”

The announcement that Kanievsky had been infected came amid a national lockdown over the holidays due to surging infection rates, with significantly high numbers of new coronavirus cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.

The week before, Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, another leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, issued a call to follow the health regulations. A letter from them, which was publicized by the Health Ministry, called on the ultra-Orthodox to only hold prayer services outdoors, while observing social distancing and while wearing masks throughout. The letter said the health rules must be kept without exception and said the Sukkot holiday must be observed with one’s nuclear family only.

Kanievsky also told his followers that they should take coronavirus tests if necessary during the festivals since this was an imperative for pikuah nefesh (saving lives).

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