The Erlauer Rebbe Rav Yochanan Sofer zt”l

This past Monday, amidst a torrential downpour and with a bitter sense of pain over the passing of a tzaddik, a huge crowd attended the levayah of the Erlauer Rebbe, Rav Yochanan Sofer zt”l. The levayah began at his bais medrash in the neighborhood of Katamon in Yerushalayim and the Rebbe was buried on Har Hamenuchos. Thousands gathered to pay their final respects to the Rebbe, who was one of the last living remnants of a bygone era and a scion of the Pressburg dynasty, whose lineage can be traced back to the Chasam Sofer.

It is difficult to explain in words the special position that the Erlauer Rebbe occupied in our society. For one thing, he was a spiritual leader who presided over more than one generation. There is no other Chassidish rebbe living today who has held his position for so many years. This made the Erlauer Rebbe the senior admor in Eretz Yisroel. In addition, like the Ponovezher Rov and the Klausenberger Rebbe, he lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and managed, bechasdei Shomayim, to reach Eretz Yisroel. Like those other venerated leaders, the Rebbe of Erlau did not give in to despair. On the contrary, he managed to uplift his followers and to provide spiritual succor for the survivors of the devastation.

The Rebbe was also heavily involved in events in Eretz Yisroel. When he saw fit, he would stand guard to uphold the standards of Torah observance. He was capable of calling a public official and commanding him to join in a struggle that the Rebbe considered important. He had connections with the gedolei Yisroel from every circle and with all of the public figures in the country. He was beloved not only among chassidim, but in the Litvishe and Sephardic communities as well. In fact, his admirers extended to the Dati-Leumi community. He radiated nobility and a sense of responsibility for Klal Yisroel that caused thousands of people to view him as their rebbe.

For many days, the Rebbe lay on his sickbed while the entire Jewish people beseeched Hashem for mercy, but on Monday morning, we received the bitter news of his passing at the age of 93. The Rebbe, who was known for his vast knowledge of the entire Torah, had spent over 70 years teaching Torah to thousands of Jews.

Surviving the Horrors

Rav Yochanan Sofer was born in the town of Erlau, Hungary, in the year 5683. His father, Rav Moshe Sofer Hy”d, the author of Yad Sofer, was a son of Rav Shimon Sofer Hy”d, the author of Hisorerus Teshuvah. Rav Shimon’s father was the Kesav Sofer, son of the Chasam Sofer. The Erlauer Rebbe’s mother was a daughter of Rav Moshe Yochanan Scheinfeld, one of the foremost talmidim of the Kesav Sofer.

As a child, the Erlau Rebbe was raised and taught by his father and grandfather, who recognized his vast potential. When he was only about ten years old, the young Yochanan’s illustrious grandfather gave instructions for him to be honored with the aliyah of maftir on one of the shalosh regalim, a testament to the great respect that Rav Shimon harbored for his promising young grandson. The chassidim understood that their Rebbe foresaw a bright future for his grandson. The future Rebbe, for his part, hovered in the presence of his father and grandfather as much as he could, paying careful attention to every word they uttered. Every one of their unique practices was meticulously engraved in his memory, forming the basis of his own conduct throughout his life. Later in his life, Rav Yochanan left home to learn in yeshiva, where he became known as an outstanding masmid whose diligence amazed even his great rabbeim, who had been teaching Torah for many years. His superhuman devotion to his learning, along with his exceptional intellect, quickly earned him renown in the Torah world.

At that point, the European skies darkened with war and the Nazi beasts began their merciless rampage, drawing ever closer to Hungary. By the time the Nazis conquered Hungary, the end of their rule was near. The American and British armies were dealing them devastating blows, while the legions of the Red Army were weakening their forces in the east, but none of that did anything to dilute their terrible lust for murder. The more they sensed their impending defeat, the more they stepped up the deportations and exterminations of Hungary’s Jews. The future Rebbe of Erlau was about 20 years old at the time and was drafted for forced labor at the infamous camp of Munka-Tabor.

When the Rebbe was separated from his family, his holy grandfather blessed him with a long, emotional brochah. At the end of their painful parting, as the Rebbe was leaving the room, his grandfather called after him in an impassioned tone, “The zechus of our masters, the Chasam Sofer and the Kesav Sofer, will accompany you!” That blessing was indeed fulfilled, and the Rebbe later credited it for his miraculous salvation from being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his grandfather, his parents, and his sisters were sent, along with the vast majority of their community. The Rebbe himself, though, was miraculously spared. Until his last day on earth, the Rebbe lived with the image of the members of his family and kehillah being taken to their deaths.

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In the year 5743 (1983), a kol korei was issued by the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, calling for an additional kinnah to be added to the Tisha B’Av service in memory of the kedoshim of the Holocaust. That kinnah was authored by the Rebbe of Erlau.

When the terrible war came to an end, the survivors gradually began to gather in the towns where they had lived before the devastation. The magnitude of the catastrophe that had befallen them quickly became clear, as they perceived the scope of the spiritual and physical destruction that had been wrought. Many of the people who had survived the war could not find the strength within themselves to get up and go on with their lives as religious Jews, and the danger of spiritual degeneration loomed over them. But then the Erlauer Rebbe stepped in. Together with his brother, Rav Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin, and with the Debreciner Rov, Rav Moshe Stern, the Rebbe reopened Yeshivas Chasam Sofer and began teaching the young survivors. He invested extraordinary effort in reviving the spirits of the survivors and in rebuilding the once-glorious, ruined world of Hungarian Jewry. Dozens of youths were drawn to him, young boys whose thirst for Torah was far more powerful than their hunger for food. The Rebbe took the place of their murdered parents and cared for them with tremendous dedication, like a compassionate father and a loving mother at once, while tending to all of their physical and spiritual needs alike.

The Rebbe’s talmidim from that era relate that his shmuessen at the time were highly emotional and impassioned. He described the Torah as “oxygen for the soul,” without which a person cannot live. He constantly quoted to them a line from a poem his father had inscribed in one of his seforim during his childhood: “Torah, Torah that I love so, for it is healing for my soul.” The Rebbe’s words, emanating from the depths of his pure heart, found their way to the hearts of his young charges, filling them with passion for the Torah.

The yeshiva remained in Budapest for about a year and then relocated to Erlau, the city of his birth, where the Rebbe continued fearlessly teaching Torah and promoting religious observance. His students, who were ensconced in the yeshiva, did not limit their concern to their own spiritual welfare. In their faithful allegiance to their Rebbe’s mission and teachings, groups of the yeshiva students would make occasional visits to the surrounding towns and villages, where they endeavored to breathe life into the souls of other survivors. On Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim, they completed minyanim in places where there were no organized minyanim. Acting on the Rebbe’s instructions, they led the tefillos, read from the Torah, blew the shofar, and performed other such functions. In that way, they prevented the smoldering embers of religious observance from being extinguished altogether under the weight of oppression from the country’s wicked government.

Despite his young age at the time, the Rebbe was recognized as one of the foremost rabbonim of his day and was regularly called upon to serve on panels of dayanim seeking solutions to the many complex halachic shailos that arose in the aftermath of the horrific war. The Rebbe spent countless hours toiling over the most difficult questions and complicated situations, doing his part to relieve other Jews of their suffering.

A Supreme Educator

The Erlauer Rebbe resettled in Eretz Yisroel during Elul of 5710 (1950). It was not an easy decision for him, but after extensive contemplation and numerous tefillos, he arrived at the decision to leave Hungary and to travel to the Holy Land. It was clear to him that his talmidim would accompany him on his journey and that he would bear the responsibility for their well-being and success.

The immigration officials, who were avowed anti-Semites, imposed great difficulties on anyone who sought official permission to leave the country, and the Rebbe hired smugglers to help his beloved students escape from the claws of their oppressors and travel to Eretz Yisroel. His efforts and prayers bore fruit, as the operation was a success: All of the Rebbe’s talmidim, along with many other Jews, managed to escape from Hungary and make their way to Eretz Yisroel. It was only then that the Rebbe began to tend to his own needs and those of his family.

After his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, the Rebbe became a devoted adherent of Rav Aharon of Belz. He also formed a close relationship with Rav Yaakov Yosef of Skver. The gedolei Yisroel, who recognized his greatness in Torah and yiras Shomayim, demonstrated extraordinary affection for him.

The Rebbe took up residence in the Katamon neighborhood of Yerushalayim, where many survivors of the war lived at the time. At first, the Rebbe taught in the Pressburg Yeshiva of Yerushalayim, which was under the aegis of Rav Akiva Sofer, another direct descendant of the Chasam Sofer. In 5713 (1953), the Rebbe founded Yeshivas Ohel Shimon-Erlau, a bastion of Torah learning named after his grandfather, on Rechov Yotam in the neighborhood of Katamon. The yeshiva quickly blossomed, attracting many young students who wished to absorb the Rebbe’s wisdom and guidance.

The yeshiva had an almost magnetic pull on many young men, who arrived on its doorstep without a penny to their names after surviving the devastating trauma of the Holocaust. For these young men, the Rebbe was a lifesaving source of support. His profound shiurim on every subject in the Torah were also part of the reason for the yeshiva’s success. The Rebbe’s dedication to his talmidim knew no bounds and astonished everyone who witnessed it. He displayed a remarkable ability to deal with every one of his students on an individual level.

Many stories indicate that the Rebbe’s prowess in chinuch was superb. Torah, tefillah and the service of Hashem were the essence of his being. Every morning, after Shacharis, the Rebbe delivered a shiur in Mishnayos and halachah. His shiurim afforded the young men a tiny glimpse into their Rebbe’s mastery of the Torah. The Rebbe delivered a number of shiurim every day, including a shiur in iyun that he delivered to a group of advanced bochurim. Many attested that the Rebbe’s profound shiurim infused them with the desire to grow in Torah and provided them with the tools they needed to develop in that way.

Every week on Erev Shabbos, the Rebbe delivered his famous public shiur klali, a dazzling presentation of his chiddushim that bespoke enormous toil. Every day, he would approach one of the pairs of chavrusos learning in the bais medrash and engage them in a dynamic discussion about the sugya they were studying. The Rebbe also delivered two daily shiurim on Daf Yomi, one to a group of talmidei chachomim and the other to a group of baalei batim. His dedication to his talmidim was so great that on the days of his own children’s weddings, his regular shiur was delivered immediately after the chupah.

Falling on His Side

Anyone who encountered the Rebbe was invariably deeply impressed, even without speaking with him. It was enough simply to watch the Rebbe for a person to be affected by him, not only by his learning but also by his davening. He stood before his Creator in a state of awe and reverence. Throughout his prayers, he shed copious tears. Many stories have been told by his talmidim about his kedushah and refinement, which were evident even in his youth.

When the Rebbe, as a young man, was drafted into forced labor in the Hungarian army, he suffered dreadfully. One of the punishments often meted out by the forced laborers’ overlords was for an unfortunate victim to be commanded to fall flat on his face on the ground and then to get up again, time after time, until his strength was utterly drained. With their sharpened senses, the Rebbe’s captors perceived that he was a holy Jew who would never agree to prostrate himself before them. The Rebbe’s companions in the forced labor company later related that even though he was ordered many times to fall forward onto the ground, he always managed to land on his side instead.

As part of his efforts to perpetuate the legacy of his forebears and to expand the Pressburg institutions of Yerushalayim, the Rebbe founded an institute for the study and publication of manuscripts, named for the Chasam Sofer. This institute went on to release new editions of dozens of works on every part of the Torah, from the writings of the Rishonim through the teshuvos of later gedolim. Its crowning achievement was the publication of the writings of all the members of the Sofer family throughout the generations, which were printed in many editions and disseminated throughout the world. Thus, the Rebbe had the privilege of spreading the teachings of his own rabbeim and forebears, which he endeavored to release in beautiful editions. The institute also printed the Erlauer Rebbe’s own seforim, which contain his chiddushim on all the masechtos of Shas and were well-received by numerous talmidei chachomim. The Rebbe also added his own annotations to many of the seforim printed by the institute, and with his passing he left behind countless collections of chiddushim, copies of numerous teshuvos that he penned to questioners around the globe, and a wonderful sefer titled Yomin D’Chanukah, which contains the intricate pilpulim that he regularly delivered on Chanukah and other Yomim Tovim.

The Erlauer Rebbe was responsible for the establishment of many beautiful institutions throughout Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora: a large bais medrash named for the Chasam Sofer in the neighborhood of Givat Shaul in Yerushalayim, the Yad Sofer bais medrash in Bnei Brak, and many other institutions of the Erlauer chassidus in Ashdod, Beitar, Elad, Haifa, and various places in Europe and the United States. The city of Beitar itself, in fact, owes its establishment in large part to the Erlauer Rebbe.

The Rebbe rapidly rose to prominence and became one of the leading figures in the chareidi community of Eretz Yisroel. Along with his prodigious Torah knowledge and yiras Shomayim, the Rebbe bore the responsibility of serving as a spiritual leader.

In the year 1974, when he was 28 years old, the Rebbe joined the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah at the behest of the Bais Yisroel of Ger. There, too, the Rebbe was a highly influential figure. Twenty-five years ago, the Rebbe joined with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the Pnei Menachem of Ger, the Nesivos Shalom of Slonim, and, yibadel lechayim, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman to establish the Vaadah L’Shemiras HaShabbos, which was charged with upholding Shabbos observance in Eretz Yisroel. He maintained close ties in Torah and halachah with the Steipler Gaon and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. He was also heavily involved in public affairs and leadership, for which purpose he kept in constant contact with Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Elyashiv. In recent years, he maintained contact with Rav Shteinman for that purpose.

The Rebbe served as a leader not only for his own community, but for all of Klal Yisroel. With his great love for the Jewish people, he shared their sorrows and their joys. His son relates that a man who was in dire need of a yeshuah once came to visit the Rebbe. The Rebbe looked at the man’s name, turned to his son, and said, “Come, let us say a chapter of Tehillim for the salvation of this man.” After they finished the Tehillim, the Rebbe said, “When a person says Tehillim for someone’s salvation, he must shed a tear.”

The Rebbe’s sense of responsibility to the public was manifest partly in his teshuvos to his many questioners; he was considered one of the leading poskim of Eretz Yisroel. Until his final days on earth, the Rebbe was constantly immersed in Torah study and wrote numerous divrei Torah and halachic rulings.

The Rebbe’s Last Days

The Rebbe’s decades of leadership as a beloved admor, father figure, educator and rosh yeshiva came to an end this week. The Rebbe became ill about two weeks ago, and tens of thousands of people pierced the heavens with their prayers for his recovery. Although we all knew that the Rebbe’s health was failing and that the doctors at Hadassah had declared his condition critical, his passing struck sorrow into the hearts of all of Klal Yisroel.

Last Shabbos, the Rebbe’s condition deteriorated and he was brought back to the hospital, where his status continued to fluctuate. There was an outpouring of tefillos on his behalf, as mass tefillah gatherings were held in all of the botei medrash of the Erlau chassidus, as well as at the Kosel, at the Meoras Hamachpeilah, at Kever Rochel, in Meron, and at the gravesite of his ancestor, the Chasam Sofer, in Pressburg. Over the course of this past week, the Rebbe’s condition stabilized somewhat, but toward this past weekend, there was another significant deterioration in his condition. On Shabbos, the entire sefer Tehillim was read in all of the botei medrash of Erlau throughout the world. Throughout that time, the Rebbe’s sons remained at his bedside, along with his devoted meshamshim and close associates. On Sunday, there was another marked deterioration in the Rebbe’s condition, and hundreds of chassidim went to the hospital to daven for their Rebbe’s recovery. At about 4:30 on Monday morning, the battle was finally lost and the Rebbe’s neshamah ascended to Shomayim.

Shortly after his passing, the niftar was brought to the bais medrash in Katamon where he served Hashem faithfully, delivered shiurim, recited tearful prayers, and taught thousands of students. Masses of chassidim and other admirers from all over the country began to flock to the bais medrash, all of them displaying signs of grief and anguish over the passing of their leader, who had reflected the greatness of the gedolim of previous generations. During the early morning hours, the chassidim continued tearfully reciting Tehillim around the mitah, as many of the Rebbe’s chassidim and talmidim passed by him one by one to beg his forgiveness, pleading with him to continue showering his influence upon them from Shomayim.

On Monday morning, the levayah began at the bais medrash in Katamon, which was packed with people, including gedolei Torah, roshei yeshivos, and other admorim. The paroches was removed from the aron kodesh. The funeral procession began with the recitation of Shema Yisroel and the acceptance of ohl Malchus Shomayim, as the sound of weeping filled the air. The mekubal Rav Yaakov Ades led these tefillos.

The first hesped was delivered by the Rebbe’s son and successor, Rav Moshe, who declared in a mournful tone, “The crown of our heads has fallen. Alas, we have sinned. It is very difficult to deliver a hesped, for there is no man in this generation who is either capable or worthy of properly eulogizing him. We weep for the three losses we have suffered on this day: We lost a rosh yeshiva, we lost the Imrei Sofer, and we lost the rebbe who guided us.” Rav Moshe went on to describe his father’s heartfelt service of Hashem in that very bais medrash. “We weep for the man who toiled throughout his life to transmit the legacy of the Chasam Sofer to the next generation and to publish his writings.”

Rav Yaakov, another son of the Erlauer Rebbe and the rov of the Erlauer community of Beitar, wept over the passing of a leader who had effected miraculous salvations for many in need. The Rebbe was a man who possessed the power of prayer, a man for whom the gates of mercy were always open. “So many yeshuos, on a large scale and on an individual level alike, were effected throughout his life,” he attested. “And that is because he took it upon himself to care for the community and for every individual with all of his heart and soul.” At the conclusion of his hesped, Rav Yaakov asked his father for forgiveness on behalf of his entire family, thanking the Rebbe’s dedicated meshamshim for their many years of devotion.

A third son, Rav Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohel Shimon, cried out bitterly, “We have lost a father and a rebbe. This week’s parshah begins with the words, ‘When you lift the head of the Bnei Yisroel,’ and last week’s parshah concludes with the words, ‘For it is kodesh kodoshim – the holiest of holies.’ He was kodesh kodoshim, and now the head of the Bnei Yisroel has been taken from us.”

The next hesped was delivered by the Rebbe’s fourth son, Rav Shimon, the rov of the bais medrash known as Toras Moshe in the city of Tzefas. Rav Shimon described his father as a paragon of hakoras hatov and a man who dedicated his entire being to his talmidim. “He will certainly continue to help them and protect them in the World of Truth,” Rav Shimon declared, “and he will do wonderful things for them there.”

Another son, Rav Zalman, the rov of the Erlauer community in Boro Park, pointed out the massive influence that his father wielded during his lifetime. “Our father, our rebbe, infused everyone with Torah and yiras Shomayim and taught everyone to follow the golden path that would lead to the best things, both spiritual and physical. Today, we feel the great loss we have suffered. He taught us what Shabbos truly means, what the tefillah of Ahavah Rabbah is all about, and what Birkas Hamazon truly is. He taught us how to say Shema Yisroel. And now we find ourselves crying out: Who will teach us all these things? Who will give us wisdom and understanding? Our rebbe was a great man in Torah, avodah, and gemillus chassodim.”

Rav Akiva Menachem, another son of the Rebbe, delivered the last hesped from a family member. The next speakers were those who were close to the Rebbe. First was Rav Yitzchok Dovid Wagschal, one of the Rebbe’s most prominent talmidim, who officially appointed the Rebbe’s eldest son, Rav Moshe Sofer, as his successor, in accordance with the Rebbe’s own instructions. Rav Moshe Spitzer, the Rebbe’s meshamesh, asked for his forgiveness on behalf of all the Rebbe’s gabbaim and the entire community. His words elicited a storm of bitter tears from the audience. When the hespeidim drew to a close, the Rebbe’s sons tore keriah. The crowd of chassidim likewise tore the edges of their garments in accordance with the halachah pertaining to the passing of a rebbi muvhak.

His Imprint Remains

The levayah procession set out for the Kesav Sofer Bais Medrash in Ezras Torah, where a massive crowd gathered. Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, gaavad of the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis, delivered a hesped there, recalling the powerful impression that the Erlauer Rebbe had made on a visit to London and Belgium decades ago. Now, he added mournfully, the Rebbe’s glory had left this world. “But the Chasam Sofer has already taught us that when the children and talmidim of a tzaddik follow his ways, his imprint remains on the world. Certainly, the zechus of the Chasam Sofer will ensure that this glorious dynasty will continue.”

Rav Aharon Schiff, the gaavad of Antwerp, delivered a mournful eulogy of his own. “We can have no conception of the scope of his incredible qualities,” he asserted. “His conduct was marked by the incredible, extremely special practices of a man who embodied every positive quality. He was the last surviving leader who brought life to our people after the years of devastation, and he disseminated Torah and yiras Shomayim for over 70 years.”

The procession then set out for Har Hamenuchos. Before it arrived at the burial plot that the Rebbe had purchased during his lifetime, the chassidim cast a flurry of kvittlach into the grave, expressing their request for their Rebbe to continue to serve as a meilitz yosher for them in Shomayim. As the Rebbe’s pure body was lowered into the ground, cries of sorrow and bitter sobs echoed all around. For a long time after the grave was covered, many chassidim remained in the cemetery, their expressions reflecting their profound sorrow and pain.

In the wake of the Rebbe’s passing, a void has been left not only in the Erlauer chassidus, but in the entire Jewish community of Eretz Yisroel.