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Top ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, tests positive for coronavirus

Statement on rabbi’s behalf says he is feeling well, ‘continuing his studies as usual’; diagnosis comes days after he reportedly violated quarantine

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)

One of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis was confirmed on Friday to have tested positive for coronavirus.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, was tested after a “certain change” in his temperature, according to a statement on his behalf quoted by Hebrew media.

“The rabbi is currently feeling well and is continuing his studies as usual, under close medical supervision,” the statement said.

It also urged Israelis to pray for Kanievsky’s health. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin sent messages wishing him a speedy recovery.

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

The diagnosis came just two days after the Haaretz daily reported Kanievsky 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.

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)

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.

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 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 COVID-19 cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.

On Wednesday, 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 COVID-19 tests if necessary during the festivals since this was an imperative for pikuah nefesh (saving lives).

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (front R) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Front C) attend a rally of the UTJ party to support the candidacy of Moshe Lion ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections on October 25, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Following the announcement that Kanievsky has COVID-19, leading Israeli politicians said they were praying for him.

“I wish a speedy and full recovery to the Torah genius, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. At this time I join the prayers of the masses of Jewish people for the rabbi’s health,” Netanyahu said in a statement shared on his social media accounts.

Rivlin issued a statement saying he was praying “from the depths of my heart” for Kanievsky’s full recovery.

Not all rabbis are urging compliance with the latest guidelines. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the rabbinical courts of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, said on Thursday in a message to followers, “Do not fear the authorities, synagogues must be kept open. Do not fear arrest, on the contrary, I’m ready to be arrested,” according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox response to the pandemic has been growing, with widespread reports saying some are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the High Holiday season, including by continuing to host mass gatherings. TV reports have shown numerous large sukkahs, capable of holding hundreds of people, being constructed in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood; Sukkot starts on Friday evening.

The crisis in the ultra-Orthodox communities is a major concern for health officials, who ascribe the high over-representation of ultra-Orthodox Jews among new infections in Israel to holiday gatherings, crowding in yeshiva educational institutions, and dense living conditions. Israel’s virus czar Ronni Gamzu on Thursday said 40 percent of recent cases of contagion were in the ultra-Orthodox community, which makes up some 10% of the population, and highlighted a rise in the rate of infection among those aged 60 and over in the community.

A growing number of reports also said many ultra-Orthodox people were disregarding lockdown regulations.

During the week-long Sukkot holiday, many religious Jews eat meals and sleep in sukkahs that are purpose-built for the holiday. They are usually primitive booths that are at least partially open to the outdoors, with porous roofs made from plant materials and openings for doors and windows.

Many ultra-Orthodox sects build large sukkahs to host communal meals and other celebrations, some of which can hold thousands of people.

Sukkahs are seen on a street in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood on October 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Thursday issued a complex set of regulations relating to the spread of the coronavirus during the Sukkot holiday, which begins on Friday evening, including allowing some crowding in the huts traditionally erected during the festival.

A government report released Friday warned sukkahs were a “serious danger” for spreading the coronavirus.

Israel is under a nationwide lockdown as its second wave outbreak spirals out of control. Health authorities fear holiday gatherings will further spread the virus. Current regulations limit indoor gatherings to 10 people, and outdoor gatherings to 20, including for prayers and protests.

According to the Health Ministry figures released Friday morning, 7,639 new infections were confirmed Thursday, a day after a record 9,021 new cases were confirmed.

Another 671 were recorded since midnight, with the number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began rising to 255,771.

No new deaths were recorded overnight, with the national toll remaining at 1,622.

According to the ministry, there were 70,660 active cases, with 807 people in serious condition, including 196 on ventilators. Another 268 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The Health Ministry said that 62,248 tests were performed Thursday, 12.3 percent of which came back positive, below the 13-15% daily positive test rates recorded over the past week.

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