This past Monday morning, the sad, bitter and difficult news of the passing of the elder of Admorim of this generation spread quickly throughout the Jewish world, to the chagrin of tens of thousands of Jews.
The tzaddik HaRav Yochonon Sofer, Admor and Gavad of Erlau, president of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel, scion of the dynasty of the Sofer family, great-great- grandson of the Chasam Sofer, was known for his extensive greatness in every chamber of the Torah, the knowledge of which he disseminated to thousands upon thousands for over seventy years, serving by the grace of Hashem, up to his demise, as the last remnant survivor from past generations. His aspirations and holy ambitions were solely to increase and aggrandize Torah through the tradition transmitted down through the ages for all time. On Monday, the heavenly forces overcame the earthly ones and this veritable ark of Torah was captured and brought to its heavenly sojourn.
The Admor was born in Erlau, Hungary, in 5683 to his father, HaRav Moshe Sofer Hy"d, author of "Yad Sofer" and son of the illustrious Rav Shimon Sofer Hy"d, author of "His'orerus haTshuva" who was, in turn, son of the Ksav Sofer and grandson of Maran the Chasam Sofer. His mother, the righteous rebbetzin, Tushna Hy"d, was the daughter of HaRav Moshe Yochonon Sheinfeld, one of the outstanding disciples of the Ksav Sofer who serve as Av Beis Din in Mihely-Palva.
He was raised from early childhood on the proverbial knees of his eminent father and grandfather, who saw a great future for this child, a veritable vessel of blessing, and showered him with the dew of Torah and kedushoh from their overflowing wellsprings. When only at the tender age of ten, his grandfather requested that he be honored with maftir on one of the sholosh Regolim in his beis medrash. This indicated to the congregation the great regard in which his esteemed grandfather held him and his hopes that the young boy grow into a glowing figure on the future skies of Torah Jewry.
One time, when the late Admor was reviewing the laws of shofar with his followers, he told them how he, himself, had been tested by his grandfather on this intricate and profound subject in full detail and on the many practical variations extant - all before he had reached the bar mitzvah age.
The Gavad of Erlau always kept his ear attuned to his forebears actions, absorbing every utterance issuing from their mouths. Every nuance and practice which they embraced was etched in his memory to serve and guide him henceforth throughout his life. In time, he left his birthplace to study Torah in the illustrious yeshivos in Nirdhaus and Verpleleter, Paksh and Yarmuth. During these years, he gained a reputation as an outstanding masmid to the point that even his great masters, who had taught for many years, were astounded at his extreme assiduity. This determined application, together with his rare talents, quickly gained him fame in the Torah world and many of the prime talmidei chachomim of those times enjoyed parrying with him, spreading the word of this boy's greatness and their future expectations of his becoming the proverbial Sinai, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge, combined with profound and acute depth in his sharpness.
The Valley of Death
The clouds of war began gathering over the skies of Europe and the Nazi fiend began storming against all of its neighbors in brutal wrath and intensity. The accursed ones advanced surely towards Hungary and its Jewish population which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. When the Germans finally seized power, they already realized that their end was nigh. The Americans and British had decimated the Nazi forces, while the Red Russian armies were chewing them up from the east. Their dire situation did not, however, dissuade them from carrying out their insane bloodthirsty lusts. Even while fully aware that they would have to surrender, they intensified the pace of the transports to the death camps and their overall methods of genocide.
The Admor, only twenty at the time, was mobilized for forced labor in the infamous work camps of Munka-Tabor. At the time of the painful and emotional leave-taking from his family, his saintly grandfather blessed him fervently for a long time. As the young man was about to leave the room, the grandfather called after him, "May the merit of the Chasam Sofer and the Ksav Sofer stand you by." This blessing was fulfilled, and in later life, the Admor attributed his miraculous escape from a transport to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his father and grandfather, mother and sisters were sent with the bulk of his community, to that selfsame blessing.
A Revolution Among the Refugees
At the end of the horrible war, the Admor turned his attention to save the surviving remnant, and slowly, the survivors gravitated to him, one from a family, two from a city to the places where they had lived before the war. There they discovered the material and spiritual devastation which left them pitifully hopeless and lacking the energy to rehabilitate themselves in any way.
Here the Admor was revealed in his might and spirit. Together with his brother, Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin zt"l, and the Av Beis Din of Debricyn HaRav Moshe Stern zt"l, they reestablished Yeshivas Chasam Sofer in Budapest where they began instructing the young folk. He mobilized tremendous effort to rehabilitate the singed firebrands and to reestablish what was once the glorious community of Hungarian Jewry.
He was inaugurated by the remnant of the Erlau kehilla as their spiritual leader and Rav. The words of his great-great- grandfather burned ever before his mind's eye, written in his will, "that the fountain never dry up nor the oak be chopped down." With unsurpassed determination, he toiled indefatigably to realize the dream of this holy ancestor.
The work was not easy as the atheistic Communist Party and its secret agents sought to suppress all religious expression. Nonetheless, the Admor gathered more and more young students and they studied Torah. Despite being hungry for bread, their thirst for Torah was stronger and drew in students to the yeshiva. In those difficult times, the Admor had to function as the parents of the young students, and he dedicated himself to the task. The Admor taught and lived the reality that the Jewish soul needs Torah as the essence of its life. He used to call the Torah, "the oxygen of the soul."
After barely more than a year in Budapest, the yeshiva moved to Erlau, where it gathered in more of the survivors. With great efforts they managed to establish a religious community, in defiance of the hostile attitude of the governmental authorities.
The yeshiva students tried their best to spread Torah to the surrounding small towns, especially on Shabbosim and yomim tovim, when groups of talmidim would go to the small communities and complete the minyanim, as well as lead them.
In addition to everything else, the Admor sat together with other dayanim to discuss and deal with all the complicated halachic shailas that arose in the aftermath of the terrible war.
In a Desolate Land
With the passing of time, it became evident that there was no future for chareidi Jewry in postwar Hungary. After much soul searching and tefillah, the Admor decided that it was time to leave Hungary and move to Eretz Yisrael. The Hungarian authorities were not sympathetic but it was clear to him that he was responsible for the safety and future of all his talmidim and the entire community. He organized smuggling rings to get his talmidim out little by little. The project was successful as all his talmidim and many other community members fled Hungary for Eretz Yisrael. The Admor was among the last to leave, about a year after the great operation began. He was zoche to tread on the Holy Land on Tuesday, 4 Elul, 5710.
In Israel he settled in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, where many refugees from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem were settled.
In 5713 he founded the Torah fortress, Ohel Shimon - Erlau, in the Katamon neighborhood, named after his grandfather. Its first home was in a building that had been the Syrian consulate, but after several years it moved to a building built specially for the yeshiva. From its modest beginnings, the yeshiva grew over the years, as the shiurim and presence of the Admor were a big draw for young talmidim.
After he arrived in Israel and settled in Jerusalem, he became very close to the Admor Rebbe Aharon of Belz zt"l. He was also close to the Admor Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Skver zt"l. Although he always retained their nusach Ashkenaz davening, his leadership had a very chassidic flavor.
A Pillar of Torah
After Shacharis every morning he used to say a shiur in mishnayos and in Shulchan Oruch. In his shiurim, he used to give over to his talmidim important information in all parts of the Torah in addition to the subject at hand. Listening to those shiurim, the talmidim could catch a small glimpse of his powers and the way he had mastery over every area and in each sugya.
In addition he gave several daily shiurim including a shiur iyun in which he delved into the depths of the sugyos, often bringing up beautiful pearls of wisdom. Many talmidim later said that his deep shiurim inspired them to grow in Torah as well as showing them the way to do so.
During the course of the day he usually went over to one of the chavrusas learning in the beis medrash, speaking over with them the sugya being learned.
He also gave two daily shiurim on the daf yomi: one for a select group of talmidei chachomim and the other to a group of baalei batim. These shiurim were regular and steady, with no breaks. Even on days when he married off one of his children, the regular shiur was held right after the chuppah! As the wedding party began the wedding feast, the Admor and his talmidim were engaged in their regular shiur.
The Pillar of Prayer
The prayer of the Admor were very special. He stood before his Creator in awe and trembling, pouring out his soul in his prayers. He often shed tears as he entreated his Master.
Many stories are told of his great kedushoh, which was evident even at an early age. In his youth he was drafted, along with many other Jewish youths, to forced labor for the Hungarian army. The conditions were horrible. One of the punishments that were often inflicted involved ordering the victim to fall flat on his face onto the ground, and then to immediately stand up, after which the process was repeated. The sadistic soldiers sensed that the youth was a holy person who would not bow before them, and they therefore redoubled their efforts against him. Years later those present would tell over that, despite being ordered to fall to the ground countless times, the holy Rebbe managed each time to land slightly on his side.
Once in recent years when he was staying at a convalescent home in Switzerland, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was in serious condition. Many prayers were said in the halls of Torah, and bechasdei Shomayim he had a recovery in only a few weeks that amazed his doctors. During the period of his recovery, the family was careful not to allow any of the female nurses to approach him, and they stood watch constantly to ensure that this was complied with. Nonetheless, one time a female nurse entered his room and went to check on one of the instruments to which he was connected. Suddenly his whole body shuddered and he raised his voice in a very loud scream, calling for his son. This incident left a tremendous impression on all involved, and caused a great kiddush Hashem.
One of his first projects was founding a foundation to research and publish manuscripts, named after his ancestor the Chasam Sofer. The Machon edited and published dozens of publications in all areas of Torah from gedolei harishonim and acharonim, as well as Shuttim of many prominent rabbonim. Naturally, one of the main areas of its focus was the many important works of the Sofer family itself, throughout the generations.
The Admor himself edited many seforim, especially the works of his family. In recent years the Machon has published the works of the Admor himself known as Yad Sofer on many masechtos.
Today, there are many Erlau communities all over Israel and also in America and Europe. There are major communities in the Ezras Torah-Givat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem, as well as Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Beitar, Elad, Haifa and in Brooklyn, New York City.
With the Elders of the Eida
The Admor was active in the public sphere for more than half a century. In 5721 he was nominated to serve on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel. At the time he was only 38 years old and the established rules said that members should be at least 40. However the Beis Yisroel asked that the rules be changed to allow him to serve and they were.
With the founding of Degel HaTorah in 5749, he was not able to attend the founding kennes since he was in chutz la'aretz at the time. However he sent his son HaRav Shimon shlita and a delegation of important members of his community.
Several years ago he established the Vaadas Rabbonim Lema'an Kedushas HaShabbos together with HaRav Eliashiv zt"l and ylct"a Maran the Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Shteinman and the Admor of Gur.
He was not only concerned with his own community but with all Jews. His son said that once they brought in the name of a Jew who needed a yeshua. His father said immediately, "Let's say a perek of Tehillim to help this Jew who is in pain." Together they said the perek. At the end his father complained, "How is it that we can read a perek of Tehillim to help someone without shedding even one tear?"
Two weeks ago he was hospitalized with pneumonia. Many prayers were said for his recovery, and he was released from the hospital for Shabbos parshas Terumah, to the relief of his many followers.
That erev Shabbos he still signed a special letter about the dangers of the Internet. The letter made a big impression on those we saw it. However it was the last public letter that he signed.
On that Shabbos his health deteriorated and he was rushed back to the hospital. His condition had its ups and downs.
On Monday morning 13 Adar I, at 04:30 in the morning, he returned his soul to his Maker.
The levaya began in Katamon in the Beis Medrash Hagodol where he had served his Maker for so many years with such dedication in Torah and tefillah.
HaRav Yaakov Ades shlita led the assembled in Tehillim. The first speaker was the eldest son, HaRav Moshe shlita. He was followed by his brother HaRav Yaakov shlita, rav of the Erlau community in Beitar. Next was the brother HaRav Avrohom Shmuel shlita, rosh yeshiva Ohel Shimon. Following him was his brother HaRav Shimon shlita, rav of beis medrash Toras Moshe in Tzfas. After him was his brother HaRav Zalman shlita, rav of the community in Boro Park. Then his brother HaRav Akiva Menachem shlita spoke, the rav of the Erlau community in Bnei Brak. The final brother to speak was HaRav Aharon shlita, rav of the community in Elad.
The next speaker was HaRav Yitzchok Dovid Wagschal shlita, who announced that HaRav Moshe, the bechor of the Admor, would be his successor. The mashbak, HaRav Moshe Shpitzer, asked mechilla in the name of all the gabboim and the whole community.
The levaya then moved to Ezras Torah were the Gavad HaRav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss was maspid. The rav of Antwerp, HaRav Aharon Shiff, spoke in the name of all the talmidim.
During the course of the levaya, people finished the entire Six Sidrei Mishna le'ilui nishmas the Admor zt"l.
At Har Hamenuchos, the Admor of Belz was maspid.
With the passing of the Admor of Erlau, we have lost a wonderful leader whose personal roots were in Europe and whose branches grace the Torah world in Israel. It is a great loss to the world of Torah, halochoh and chassidus.