Rav Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar zt”l

Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, the Satmar Rov (5647/1887-5739/1979), was a gaon olam, conversant in all spheres of Torah. He played a major role in the revival and resurgence of Yiddishkeit after the decimation of European Jewry during the Holocaust. He utilized his brilliance and charisma, enwrapped in genuine concern for all, to give chizuk to the downtrodden of Klal Yisroel.

Rav Yoel was born in Sighet to the Kedushas Yom Tov, Rav Chananya Yom Tov Lipa, and Rebbetzin Chana Teitelbaum. He married Rebbetzin Chava, daughter of Rav Avrohom Chaim Horowitz, rov of Plantch, and after her passing in 1936, he married Rebbetzin Alte Faiga, daughter of Rav Avigdor Shapiro of Czestochowa. He became rov of Orshava in 1911 and was appointed in 1924 as rov of Krula, where he established a yeshiva. When he became rov of Satmar in 1934, he transferred the yeshiva there.

The Rov escaped the horrors of the Holocaust when he was rescued aboard the Kastner train that brought him to Switzerland. After the war, the Rov settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he reestablished his court. He founded the town of Kiryas Yoel in the 1970s.

The Rov authored many seforim, many under the title Divrei Yoel. The following is a sampling of his brilliant chiddushei Torah so you may glimpse a bit of a gadol b’Yisroel who impacted tens of thousands of Yidden throughout the world.

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The Gemara (Sukkah 52b) advises us in the name of the Tana Devei Rebbi Yishmoel: “Im poga boch menuval zeh moshcheihu lebais hamedrash im even hu nimo’ach im barzel hu mispotzeitz – If this revolting one (the yeitzer hara) engages you, draw him into the bais medrash. If he is like stone, he will dissolve, and if he is like iron, he will shatter.” Chazal teach us that the only way to overcome the yeitzer hara is through pulling him into the bais medrash, where he can be overcome through the Torah and tefillah that permeate therein.

The yeitzer hara is always trying to entrap us. Those who are Torason umnoson, meaning that Torah is their preoccupation, have the wherewithal to bring the yeitzer hara into the bais medrash, where they are constantly learning. However, what can those who are not constantly learning in the bais medrash do to overcome the yeitzer hara?

The Divrei Yoel offers that even those who have left the bais medrash can be reckoned as still being there if their thoughts are still there. He quotes the Ramban, who says that even those who maintain that techum Shabbos is a Torah halacha, nevertheless, if someone makes an eruv with bread at a certain location, this display of his intention determines that his abode is where the bread is, allowing him to walk there and to overcome an issur de’Oraisa.

We see from eruv techumin that your intention determines where you are. Even if you are not physically there, your intention to be there suffices to reckon that you are actually there.

Likewise, regarding the yeitzer hara, if a person spends time in the bais medrash learning Torah and davening, even though afterwards he may be occupied with a livelihood outside the bais medrash, if his desire and intention is to be there, it is reckoned as if he is indeed there (Aggados Maharit, Sukkah)

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Chazal (Zevachim 54b) learn from the posuk of “vekamta ve’alisa el hamakom – and you shall rise up and ascend to the place” that the Bais Hamikdosh is higher than all of Eretz Yisroel, and Eretz Yisroel is higher than all other lands. The Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, Shoftim) asks that Dovid Hamelech derived from pesukim (Zevachim 54b) the location to build the Bais Hamikdosh. Why didn’t Dovid simply search out the highest location in Eretz Yisroel and build the Bais Hamikdosh there?

The Divrei Yoel answers this question based on the Gemara (Gittin 57a) that recounts that King Yanai possessed 600,000 cities in Har Hamelech and each city had 600,000 inhabitants, etc. Ulah exclaimed that he saw this area and even 600,000 reeds couldn’t grow there. Rav Chanina responded to Ulah that the Torah describes Eretz Yisroel as Eretz Tzvi. Just as the removed hide of a deer contracts and cannot cover the deer anymore, Eretz Yisroel likewise expands when it is inhabited, but contracts when it is deserted.

This can be understood based on the Ein Yaakov that when Klal Yisroel lives a life full of kedusha, Eretz Yisroel expands, and if Klal Yisroel chalilah lives otherwise, the land shrivels and contracts.

Just as Eretz Yisroel’s length and width change depending on Klal Yisroel’s spiritual level, similarly, the height of Eretz Yisroel changes in the same manner. The Torah’s reference of vekamta v’alisa, you shall rise up and ascend, is relevant when the Bais Hamikdosh is flourishing and Klal Yisroel is growing spiritually. At other times of our history, when we are not yet b’shleimus, at perfection, as during Dovid’s times, the Bais Hamikdosh and Eretz Yisroel are not higher than the rest of the world (Aggados Maharit, Zevachim).

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Avrohom Avinu had a margolios tovah, a beautiful pearl, hung from his neck, and any sick person who gazed at it was instantly cured (Bava Basra 16b). Tosafos asks: During Avrohom’s times, there were no ailments that needed healing. Who needed this margolios tovah? Tosafos answers that an ailment from a traumatic event did exist.

The Maharsha then asks: If the pearl healed wounds from trauma, why couldn’t Avrohom use this pearl to heal himself from his bris milah?

The Divrei Yoel responds: Who says that Avrohom received this pearl early on? The Divrei Yoel suggests that Avrohom merited this pearl after he accumulated many maasim tovim, after his body was complete, after the bris milah.

Hashem desired to bestow this wondrous pearl only when Avrohom was joyous and completely healed. Hashem therefore sent Gavriel to heal Avrohom and only afterwards did He present Avrohom with the margolios tovah (Divrei Yoel, Vayeira).

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Chazal (Kiddushin 39b) conclude that “s’char mitzvah behai alma leka – there is no reward for fulfilling a mitzvah in this world.” The early commentators explain that since mitzvos are spiritual, the reward for fulfilling them is also spiritual. It is unreasonable to measure reward for a mitzvah with mundane items that are valueless compared with the real worth of a mitzvah.

The Divrei Yoel develops this concept further. He says that this principle that no mundane item is worthy of a reward for a mitzvah only applies when the mitzvah is done lishmah, with no ulterior motive. If, however, one has ulterior motives for doing the mitzvah, then the mitzvah is not completely spiritual. He therefore will receive a reward for such a mitzvah in this world.

This explains why Hashem gave Moshe fragments of the second Luchos (Nedorim 38a). After the Bnei Yisroel sinned with the Eigel, the Yidden were no longer on the same spiritual level as prior to the Eigel. Their mitzvos were no longer performed purely lishmah. Therefore, Moshe, who was a catalyst for Klal Yisroel’s mitzvah observance, was entitled to some of the reward for these mitzvos. This is why Hashem gave him these valuable fragments specifically at this time (Divrei Yoel, Mikeitz).

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Klal Yisroel has a tradition of partaking of fruit on Tu B’Shevat, the Rosh Hashanah of the trees, and of laying out trees in shuls and homes on Shavuos, the Yom Tov when the world’s fruit are being judged. Would it not make more sense to do the reverse, bringing out trees to shuls and homes on Tu B’Shevat, the Rosh Hashanah of trees, and eating fruit on Shavuos, when the fruit are being judged?

The Divrei Yoel offers that when people are judged in the heavenly bais din, the bais din considers how their children have turned out. Are the children G-d-fearing? Are they raising their children on the path of Torah and yiras Shomayim? Similarly, Hashem judges children commensurate to where they have come from. Those who come from families of solid spiritual values are expected to accomplish more in the realm of ruchniyus.

Therefore, on Tu B’Shevat, Rosh Hashanah of trees, we remind the trees of their responsibility to producing luscious and plentiful fruit. Therefore, we eat fruit. On Shavuos, when the world is being judged on its fruit, we put out trees as a reminder that the fruit should know their pedigree and consequently fulfill their potential (Aggados Maharit, Rosh Hashanah).

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There are four questions in the Mah Nishtanah. The first two questions, why we eat matzoh and maror on the Seder night, are answered, matzoh to remember the haste with which we left Mitzrayim and maror to relive the bitterness of the enslavement in Mitzrayim. The Baal Haggadah doesn’t answer the questions regarding the tibbul, dunking, and heseibah, leaning. Why not?

The Divrei Yoel learns from these omissions the principle that not every question has an answer. We are required to believe in Hashem, notwithstanding that we may have unanswered questions. The proverbial son of the Mah Nishtanah learns from the unanswered questions that emunah in Hashem means believing in Hashem even if one does not understand the meaning of everything (Divrei Yoel, Haggadah).

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R’ Mendy Pollak learns and teaches Torah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.