The Torah Treasure of Rav Shimon Sofer zt”l

Rav Shimon Sofer zt”l (5581/1821-5643/1883) was one of the great manhigei Yisroel who led Klal Yisroel during the turbulent times of the nineteenth century. He headed Machzikei Hadaas, an organization that strengthened Yahadus, alongside Rav Yehoshua of Belz. He also served for a period in the Austrian parliament, where he was the eloquent voice of Yidden amongst the elite of the government.

Rav Shimon was born in Pressburg to his parents, Rav Moshe Sofer, the Chasam Sofer, and Rebbetzin Sarel, daughter of Rav Akiva Eiger. He learned at the Pressburg Yeshiva under his father and married Miriam, a daughter of Rav Dov Ber Sternberg of Krula.

Rav Shimon was appointed rov in Mattersdorf in 1844 and headed a yeshiva there. In 1861, he accepted the rabbonus of Cracow, and was well-received by the chashuvim and laymen of the city. He wrote teshuvos on difficult communal matters and instituted programs to invigorate the kehillah. He fought against the Maskilim who tried to make inroads into the community, and he championed the cause of those involved in strengthening Torah Yidden. His son-in-law and nephew, Rav Akiva Kornitzer, succeeded him as rov of Cracow.

Rav Shimon’s chiddushim and teshuvos were published under the name Michtav Sofer. The following are several of his beautiful Torah thoughts.

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The Seder on leil Pesach is replete with items that commemorate the miracles and events that transpired on or prior to the fifteenth night of Nissan. We eat charoses to recall the tit, clay, of the servitude (Pesachim 116a). The Torah (Shemos 11:7) describes how “lo yecheratz kelev lishono,” no dog sharpened its tongue (barked) during this time period, depicting the tranquility experienced by the Yidden during makkas bechoros.

Where is the commemoration for this major miracle?

The Michtav Sofer (Haggadag) explains that Chazal (Pesachim 113a) instruct us not to reside in a city where there are no dogs, because dogs, with their incessant barking, are an effective deterrent against enemies and thieves. Therefore, to recognize that the dogs ceased to bark that remarkable night of Pesach, we have the minhag of “stealing” the Afikoman, indicating that we do not fear the dogs’ bark, as on this night of Pesach, their bark has been stilled.

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The end of Parshas Vayigash (Bereishis 47:28) is stuma, closed, because when Yaakov was niftar, the eyes and hearts of the Bnei Yisroel closed due to the oppression that began under the Mitzriyim. However, isn’t it written (Shemos 1:6, Ohr Hachaim) that the servitude and oppression did not commence as long as one of the shevatim was living?

The Michtav Sofer (Vayechi) offers that Yaakov went down to Mitzrayim under Hashem’s orders, al pi hadibbur. Yaakov appreciated that he was entering golus, so he made himself safeguards, such as living separately in Goshen. However, as his children and descendants prospered in Mitzrayim, they began to assimilate and absorb the ways of the gentiles. Their ascension into Egyptian society aroused the wrath and jealousy of the avdei Paroh, until Paroh implemented his plan to kill the Jewish newborn children.

The assimilation into Egyptian society was the beginning of the servitude and oppression. This assimilation began as soon as Yaakov had passed. Therefore, the parsha is stuma at this moment in time, since the shibud had begun, ostensibly at first, but nevertheless it had begun.

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Hashem (Shemos 11:2) requested that the Bnei Yisroel should take items from the Mitzriyim “shelo yomar oso tzaddik Avrohom v’avdom v’anu osam kiyum bahem v’acharei chein yeitzu b’rechush gadol lo kayim bahem,” so that Avrohom shouldn’t say that the prophecy of servitude and oppression Hashem carried out, but the promise that the Jews would leave Mitzrayim with rechush gadol wasn’t kept. The Michtav Sofer (Bo) explains that the rechush gadol refers to the middas histapkus, the attitude of being satisfied with minimal amounts. The one who is mesameiach b’chelko is the truly wealthy individual. All money has a limit and cannot really be called rechush gadol, but one who is satisfied with little truly possesses a rechush gadol, a great fortune.

Avrohom was hoping that his descendants would merit this feeling and attitude. If they would leave Mitzrayim with no possessions, this would show nothing, since they would be leaving under duress. Therefore, Hashem requested that Moshe instruct them daber na, please speak, to take possessions out of Mitzrayim. This expression of na, please, indicates that without this specific request, they would not have taken the rechush out of Mitzrayim, since they were satisfied with all they had. The need to cajole them to take items for themselves showed that they were otherwise happy with their lot, without the need for mundane luxuries.

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The Medrash teaches: “Imri na achosi at – mikan sheshochtin l’choleh b’ShabbosPlease say you are my sister – from here we learn that one may shecht for an ill person on Shabbos.” What does this puzzling Medrash mean?

The Michtav Sofer (Lech Lecha) quotes the Ran in Yoma who says that it is preferable to shecht for a choleh on Shabbos rather than giving him neveilah to eat. This is because the issur of shechitah on Shabbos in this instance is a one-time aveirah, while eating neveilah meat involves a sin with every single kezayis eaten.

Avrohom was concerned that Paroh would rationalize that killing Avrohom, a one-time sin, was preferable to committing a sin every time he would live with Sarah while she was an aishes ish. Therefore, Avrohom asked Sarah to say that she was Avrohom’s sister.

The Medrash therefore juxtaposes Avrohom’s request of saying achosi at, thwarting Paroh’s rationale, with shechting for a choleh on Shabbos, as both involve transgressing one issur to avoid transgressing additional issurim.

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The Michtav Sofer (Vayeira) explains the difference between Chanoch and Avrohom Avinu. The Torah (Bereishis 5:22) says regarding Chanoch, “Vayishalech Chanoch es ha’Elokim – And Chanoch walked alongside G-d.” Chanoch’s main purpose in life was to perfect himself. Avrohom, however, was involved in helping others achieve greatness in their quests for ruchniyus, as it says, “Es hanefesh asher asu veChoron – The souls they made in Choron” (Bereishis 12:5).

Avrohom’s entire raison d’être was to help others. Avrohom could have also been involved with hisbodedus and self-improvement, and he would have surely reached great heights. He instead involved himself with bringing people to Yiddishkeit. He became known as the “av hamon goyim,” the “father of a multitude of nations,” for good reason.

Hashem endorsed Avrohom’s path, as Hashem says, “Ki yadativ – For I have loved him” (Bereishis 18:19). Hashem recognized that Avrohom certainly desired to reach the highest levels of spirituality. Instead, he devoted his time and resources to help others in their quest for Torah and yiras Shomayim. He was botel retzono mipnei acheirim.

The Michtav Sofer concludes that Avrohom epitomized the principle of “kol hamezakeh es harabim ein chet ba al yado – whoever influences the tzibbur to become meritorious shall not be the cause of sin” (Avos 5:21).

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The Gemara (Brachos 63b) states, based upon the posuk of “Adam ki yamus b’ohel” (Bamidbar 19:14), that “ain Torah miskayemes ela bemi shemeimis atzmo aleha – Torah words are not retained except by one who kills himself over the Torah.”

This Chazal is bewildering. The Torah’s ways are darchei noam, pleasant. And the Gemara states (Avodah Zarah 54a), “Vochai bahem velo sheyamus bahem – He shall live with them and not die with them.” How can Chazal teach that only through literally killing oneself, can one achieve greatness in Torah?

The Michtav Sofer explains that the main purpose of Torah and mitzvos is for a person to be focused on fulfilling Hashem’s will, with no concern for himself. He should learn Torah and do mitzvos lishmah. Therefore, the Gemara states that a person can only ensure the kiyum of his Torah and mitzvos if he is meimis atzmo, removing and eliminating his atzmo, his desires and self-interests, from his mitzvos and Torah learning. In this manner, he will succeed in his mission of learning Torah and doing mitzvos properly.

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Accepting the kingship of Hashem is encapsulated in the words, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad – Hear Yisroel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.” What purpose is there in emphasizing the two introductory words of Shema Yisroel?

The Michtav Sofer (Va’eschanon) offers that the word Shema means gathering together, as in “Veyishama Shaul es ha’am – And Shaul gathered together the nation” (Shmuel I, 15:4). The unity of Klal Yisroel is imperative in assuring yichud Hashem. The achdus of the Bnei Yisroel is testimony to the achdus of Hashem, as the nusach of Shabbos Mincha says, “Atah echad veShimcha echad umi k’amcha Yisroel goy echad ba’aretz.”

We see from Shema that specifically the unity that exists amongst the Bnei Yisroel generates unity and achdus in the ecclesiastical spheres of the Heavens above.

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