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23 Av, 5783 - August 10, 2023 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Admor Rabbenu Yoel of Satmar—His Forty-Fourth Yahrtzeit

By Rabbi Yaakov Friedman


This appreciation was originally published in 1994, that is, 29 years ago.

The Admor of Satmar was not merely a Rebbe. He was a concept. There were Jewish leaders who did not like him. He knew this. But his signpost in life was "truth." Under his leadership, "Satmar" was a synonym for a Torah empire. He established charitable institutions. His philanthropy became well-known. His opposition to Zionism was uncompromising. But above all, he was a giant in Torah—a true giant. He derived his firmness from the Torah which he studied day and night. It instilled him with the strength to act. He was a Hungarian scholar, yet he knew how to capture the hearts and minds of the students of Telshe.

Part I

For Part 2 click here.

A newspaper is not a suitable forum for portraying the heights and the depths of the personality, the Torah and the activities of the saintly gaon, the Rebbe of Satmar, zt'l. Even a book, which from a technical standpoint can encompass broad topics, is too limited an arena for this subject. Scores of Yiddish and English books, pamphlets and publications about the life and the works of the Rebbe have seen the light of day. Editions have been sold out, and new ones have appeared in their stead. Israeli and American publishers have contributed to the effort to memorialize the Rebbe. Yet the gap has not been filled. The major part of his remarkable image still remains hidden.

We, in our limited framework, cannot presume to do justice to his multifaceted image. That task is far too immense for us. But neither can we fail to recall him. Nor can we remain silent as his fifteenth yahrtzeit approaches. Instead, we feel obligated to focus on the central aspects of his personality: his exertion in Torah, and his penetration of her depths.

The incident we are about to describe took place in 5706 (1946), in Yerushalayim. The Admor of Satmar, who had arrived in Karta deshufraya, was about to visit one of his close acquaintances—R' Meir Eichler — who had fallen ill.

On the way to R' Meir's humble abode, the Rebbe and his travelling companion encountered a caravan of camels on whose backs Arabs were seated. The Admor paused, smiled and recalled a childhood scene.

Even as a child, the Rebbe's diligence was amazing. He was totally immersed in his studies and oblivious to his surroundings. One erev Shabbos, as he was reviewing the weekly portion— shnayim mikra, echod Targum — he reached the verse, "and he made the camels (gemalim)lie down." Startled by the new concept he had encountered, he asked his father: "What are gemalim?"

"Camlen," replied the Kedushas Yom Tov in Yiddish.

"And what are camlen?" continued the child.

"Look outside and you will see many camlen," his father replied in amazement.

The home of the Kedushas Yom Tov was saturated with love of Torah. The Admor of Satmar once related that when his father would spur his sons to study with diligence, he would say: "I have two aspirations in life: one, that my sons become great Torah scholars who toil in Torah, and the other that my daughters have no concept in Torah learning. When a person prays to Hashem, half of his prayer is answered—tefillah oseh mechtza. The second half of my prayer has already been fulfilled, and my daughters have no understanding in Torah learning. Regarding my first request, prayer is of no avail and my sons must toil themselves until it is realized.

Toil and aspiration combined, and young Yoelish made great strides in his studies. From early youth, he contracted a covenant of friendship with the Torah. When his parents would order him to close his gemora and go to sleep, he would plead with them to pity him, saying: "Ich hob nach nisht mit vos leigen shlufin" (I have yet have anything with which to sleep.)

One time, young Yoelish remained awake, studying with remarkable diligence. It was late, and his father, who wanted to stroll in the cool night air, ordered him to go to sleep. When his father returned from his walk, he found Yoelish awake and studying once more with great fervor. "Why didn't you obey me?" he angrily asked. "It's a mitzvah to obey your father."

Innocently, Yoelish replied: "I did obey you, Tatte. I got into bed, fell asleep, but awoke and began to study again."

Chassidim relate that when the Kedushas Yom Tov would pause to ponder a point during the weekly shalos seudas discourses he would deliver, Yoelish would take a chavrusa and utilize those precious moments for an additional review of the laws he was studying.

In his old age, he was asked how he had managed to study day and night, and still retain his clarity and freshness of mind. To this, he replied simply: "Unz hot men azoi eingevunt. (They have trained us that way.)"

And this training remained in his stead until his final day. Throughout his entire life, he never slept more than an hour or two a day. There were days, too, when he did not sleep at any set time. Nevertheless, his mind was always crystal clear.

A doctor once sharply reproved this habit, claiming that lack of sleep is detrimental to the body. To this the Rebbe replied: "Fifty years of experience have proven that I need very little sleep."

A prestigious doctor who attended the Rebbe was astonished by the sleeping habits of so elderly a man. "Your brief naps on a chair are ruining your health," he warned, and then continued to prove to him that the body is weakened by lack of sleep.

But the Rebbe replied;

"Sleep is actually the greatest thief of all. It robs one of the hours during which he can study Torah and serve his Maker. This is the type of theft which cannot be restored. When a thief accosts one with a weapon, the victim has no choice but to surrender. But I have never seen a person willingly hand himself over to an unarmed robber."

He acquired his disdain for sleep from his saintly father, the Kedushas Yom Tov who every night would dip his feet in a pail of cold water, and study with amazing diligence.

The following blessing was always on the lips of the Kedushas Yom Tov: "May Am Yisroel always have glowing nights (lichteke nacht) in Torah and avoda."

The yeshiva in Williamsburg

At one Purim feast, during the Rebbe's early days in the United States, a guest, who had indulged in too much wine, cried out: "On Purim there is a turnabout! All year the Rebbe sits at the head of the table. Let us rearrange the seating order today, so that I shall be at the head."

It was then that the Rebbe, who had also imbibed some wine, let out his secret. Turning to his tipsy guest, he said: "When you can testify that you have remained awake for forty-two consecutive years, you too will sit at the head of the table."

Someone once complained about his inability to immerse himself in his Torah studies. "Achieving a satisfactory level of concentration is the result of tremendous exertion and involves a bitter struggle," he said.

Astonished, the Rebbe replied: "When I immerse myself in Torah study, I am unable to detach myself from the sugya I am studying. When I am forced to pause, I feel bitter. I can't understand how a Jew can harbor any feelings of bitterness as he sits beside a page of the gemora."

He pursues this theme further in Divrei Yoel, Shemos where he comments on the Zohar's remark that the verse, "and they embittered their lives with hard labor (avoda kasha) and with mortar and bricks (chomer ulevainim)," refers to Torah study.

"The Zohar," he explained, "deduces this idea from the phonetic closeness of the words kashe and kushya and the fact that chomer brings to mind the phrase, kal vochomer."

The Admor asks: "It is written that Torah is `more delightful than gold and much pure gold,' and that Torah study is the sweetest and most pleasurable experience on earth. If so, how does the Zohar maintain that the bitterness of the lives of our forefathers in Egypt stemmed from their study of Mishna and Beraissa?"

He replies: "According to the Zohar, for one who has merited purity of soul and clarity of mind, there is nothing in the world more pleasant or sweet than Torah study, which is the most exalted delight in the entire universe.

"To one whose sins form a screen between him and his Maker, and whose desires hold sway over his reason, the struggle to acquire Torah knowledge is indeed bitter."

Young Beginnings

The Kedushas Yom Tov charted a course for his young son in the Talmud's sea. When Yoelish was only five, his father instructed him to study two pages of gemora a day, without any help from his rebbe. He then proceeded to test the child on those two pages every day. Yoelish would repeat them with amazing fluency and sweetness. When he came across a difficult matter, he would suggest his own interpretations, many of which were interlaced with childish ideas. Hearing them, his father would smile with delight at the sweet and youthful thoughts.

As a youth, he delivered remarkable chidushim. When he was only nine, the Rebbe of Shinava tested him on the topic of shikul hadaas, which appears in Sanhedrin 84. Yoelish recited his chidushim on the topic before the Rebbe, who so delighted by them, that he said "Dos heist a shikul daas."

The Rebbe of Satmar had a remarkable habit which he acquired when he was young. As a child, he would seem to drowse during his father's discourses at his tisch. He would "awake" only when his father had finished speaking.

His brother, the Atzei Chaim, would chide him, saying: "How is it that you open your eyes precisely when Tatte has finished speaking?"

One time, the chassidim found it difficult to understand the Rebbe's thoughts. Suddenly, Yoelish "awoke" and said: "If someone will place five liters of wine on the table, I will explain my father's ideas." Someone placed the wine on the table, and Yoelish explained the entire discourse.

When he finished, he said: "If someone places a few more liters of wine on the table, I will repeat what my father said on the same parsha, last year."

All that time, his father sat at the head of the table, and beamed with delight. As Yoelish was about to repeat the discourse of the previous year, the Admor asked his attendants to bring mayim acharonim to the table, and without delay, began to recite bircas hamozone. His chassidim say that he feared the ayin hora.

Until his final days, he would pretend to drowse for hours on end. Sometimes he would become deeply engrossed in his own thoughts, as others recited their Torah ideas, and people would assume that he was napping.

Often, when his eyes were closed and he appeared to be asleep, people would notice him making abrupt movements under the table, with his hands. Frequently, too, he would emit deep groans and mumble incoherent Torah thoughts. One time, his attendant saw him "asleep" and told him to go to bed.

"I am not sleeping," the Rebbe replied. "Such is my way!"

As a youth, he was well versed in all aspects of Torah study. He was familiar with the entire Tanach, and knew all of its verses and their explanations. He was remarkably proficient in the commentaries of the rishonim on the Torah, such as Rambam, Even Ezra, Radak, Ralbag, Yefeh Toar and Neizer Kodesh. He would refer to their works quite often in his halachic responsa.

When he was still a young man, the great geonim of Hungary testified that he was familiar with every one of the remarks of the Tosafos. When delivering discourses to his students or when discussing Torah with scholars, who would repeat statements from the Shas or the rishonim, he would apprise them, on the spot, of the deletions or additions which occurred over the years.

He was remarkably well-versed in the works of our acharonim such as Ketzos HaChoshen, Nesivos, Tzlach, Chasam Sofer, and Pnei Yehoshua. He was especially fond of the works of the Pnei Yehoshua, and would delight in them during difficult times in his life. Students who wished to please him, would read portions of the Pnei Yehoshua to him, and set his mind at ease.

Important Thoughts

He would deliver a discourse at the opening of each new zman in his yeshiva, and instill his students with a love for in-depth study. He once defined, for them, the meaning of limud be'iyun, saying that it involves bringing oneself to the state where the questions of the Tosafos and the acharonim become one's own questions, and personally pain him. Discovering the answers to these questions should be an all-encompassing experience which grants one no peace of mind.

During one such discourse, he dwelled on the dictum: "An ignorant person does not fear sin," (Avos 2).

"Chazal," he explained "are teaching that one who is not wise enough to seek Hashem and to assess his personal propensities and spiritual state, cannot perceive the Torah's inner meanings by natural means. "Der vos farshteit nisht kein Tosafos, ken zich avada nit farshtein."

At another session, he discussed the difference between the iyun and the bekius shiur. "During both types of lessons," he stressed, "a student must clarify every aspect and fine point of the topic at hand, along with its commentaries. However, in the iyun shiur, he must probe the roots of the topic, and plumb its depths, while in the bekius shiur he must sense the difficulties and the finer points, and continue on. But sense them, he must!"

When he was unable to clarify or understand a particular Talmudic point, he would become deeply depressed. One time, while delivering a discourse on the topic of simanim, he was stymied by a question. He searched the commentaries, toiled and probed, but found no answer.

His heart broke, and he could not continue teaching. He closed his gemora, and dejectedly began to recite ma'ariv. Afterwards, though, he returned to his studies with a beaming countenance, for he had resolved the question.

Pilpul and Depth in Learning

As a youth, he was deeply fond of pilpul, and had a special liking for books based on pilpulistic methods. He particularly loved the writings of the Chidushei HaRim. While in the United States, he once recited a very sharp and new pilpul. One of the listeners commented that the Chidushei HaRim had already made such a remark. At this, the Rebbe beamed with delight and said: "How fortunate I am to have reached the same conclusion as the Chidushei HaRim.

Afterwards, he excitedly added: "I spent many nights with the Chidushei HaRim."

The words of the Chidushei HaRim were frequently on his lips, and sometimes, he would review his writings with excessive delight, as if reading a novel.

Once, while delivering a discourse in the yeshiva in Satmar, he explained a passage from the Shelah HaKodosh which opposes the pilpulistic method.

"The Shelah," he said "is apologizing for having dabbled in pilpul when he was young. He refers to such study as `the sins of his youth.' Of course, only one who committed such sins during his youth, can later on become the Shelah HaKodosh.

In 5713, the Admor of Satmar visited Cleveland, and the illustrious Yeshiva of Telshe. During his visit, a lengthy ideological debate erupted between him and the rosh yeshiva, R' Elya Meir Bloch. Afterwards, when R' Elya Meir invited him, in the name of the administration, to honor the yeshiva with a shiur, the Admor did not refuse, so that the students would not think that he and the rosh yeshiva were at odds.

At that time, the yeshiva was studying Nedarim. The Admor's attendants attempted to dissuade him from delivering the shiur, claiming that Hungarian study methods were totally different than the in-depth approach of Telshe. This was especially so regarding Nedarim, which was a particularly "yeshivish" tractate. But the Admor dispelled their qualms, and rose to deliver the shiur.

For many years, the students of Telshe recalled that shiur with longing. The Admor had penetrated the depths of the topic the yeshiva was pursuing. He analyzed its foundations and, using the concepts and expressions of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, clarified its meaning.

For a long time after the rousing shiur the "Torah warriors" of Telshe surrounded the Admor, bombarding him with their questions. When the prestigious event had concluded, the rosh yeshiva, R' Elya Meir rose to the platform and publicly praised the Torah prowess of the Admor of Satmar.

One time, the Admor visited the town of Salish, and delivered a sermon on the parsha. As he spoke, he veered to current problems, and sharply rebuked the community for its low spiritual state.

One of the trustees of the Beis Medrash was displeased with the Rebbe's rebukes, and angrily rose to the platform and shouted at the Rebbe, embarrassing him, too. The Admor was forced to descend the platform in the middle of the shiur. An uproar ensued, and a bitter dispute erupted between the trustee's defenders and those G-d fearing Jews who protested the disgrace of the Torah.

When the mara de'asra, R' Yisroel Klein, who had not attended the shiur due to his ailing health, learned what had occurred, he dispatched his loyal attendant to order the congregation to permit the Rebbe to complete his shiur.

The Rebbe returned to the platform and continued from where he had left off. He repeated the questions he had posed in the beginning of the shiur, and resolved them in the light of the event that had just transpired. He recalled R' Tarfon's words: "I wonder if anyone in this generation is capable of rebuking..," and used them as a springboard for the remainder of his discussion. A tremor passed over the congregation, which now sensed the Admor's great saintliness.


The Admor once made a startling confession to his loyal attendant when the two were visiting a spa. The Rebbe was scheduled to deliver a deep shiur, and the attendant asked him how long it would take to prepare it.

"Ven hob ich tzeit afilu tzu trachten vos tzu zogen? Nor vos? Ich leren doch yeden tog mit tallis utefillin, Chumash, Rashi mit Ramban...ven es kumt der tzu, vert shoin epes gevoren."

("And when to I have time to think about what to say? What then do I do? Wrapped in tallis and tefillin, I study Chumash with Ramban every day... and when the time to deliver the shiur arrives, something inevitably occurs.")

The Unconscious Rebbe Cries Out to Hashem

Chassidim relate an amazing story, which indicates which thoughts were uppermost in the Rebbe's mind.

In 5728, the Admor of Satmar fell gravely ill, and was unconscious for a number of days. His private physician, Dr. Bencer, one of the finest doctors in the United States, wished to know whether the Rebbe's senses were functioning, and handed him a pen and a piece of paper.

The Rebbe took the pen, and passed it across the paper with difficulty. The people in the room were startled to see what the unconscious Admor had written. These words appeared on the paper: Anochi Hashem Elokecha...Ani velo acher."

The doctor was amazed. He explained to those in the room that the Rebbe could not exert himself physically, and had therefore focused his thoughts on the ideas which were most deeply imbedded in his soul.

Next Week: The hesped delivered at the time by Maran HaRav Shach


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