||Guardian of Jerusalem
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RABBI YOSEF CHAIM SONNENFELD
Adapted by Rabbi Hillel Danziger from the three volume Hebrew biography
by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Zonnenfeld
ARTSCROLL HISTORY SERIES® GUARDIAN OF JERUSALEM
© Copyright 1983, by MESORAH PUBLICATIONS, Ltd. 4407 Second Avenue I
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11232 I (718) 921-9000
0-89906-458-2 (hard cover) 0-89906-459-0 (paperback)
One of the most remarkable people in the contemporary history of
Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld led the struggle to preserve the
integrity of the Holy City. He and his bride came to Jerusalem as a
penniless young couple with no other ambition than to soak up the
spiritual riches of Jerusalem. But he was destined to do at least as
much for Jerusalem as it would do for him. Early on, his blend of
saintliness, common sense, and integrity were recognized by the leaders
of the traditional yishuv. He became their disciple and right hand. Then
he became their successor in the battle to preserve the yishuv.
His story includes glimpses of such major figures as the Ksav Sofer, R'
Yehoshua Lelb Dlskfn, R' Shmuel Salant, R Moshe Blau, and many others.
This book is a valuable contribution to modern history as well. It deals
with the struggle of the yishuv to maintain its identity against the
forces of "progress," the British Mandate and the secularist tendencies
of the Jewish Agency. And it chronicles the relationship between Rabbi
Sonnenfeld and his great contemporary, a scholar and leader he revered
but disagreed with in major areas of principle, Rabbi Abraham Isaac
Brilliant, gentle, kindly, unassuming, Rabbi Sonnenfeld was the kind of
man who stooped to draw water for a little girl and endangered his
health to save the life of a bitter enemy. There were no contradictions
and no airs about him.
To read his story is to love the man and to understand the era he helped
shape and the City he loved.
THIS BOOK IS A STIRRING, inspiring, and enlightening picture of one of
the most difficult and pivotal periods in the history of Jerusalem and
in the life of the man who excelled as a guardian of its traditions. Rav
Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and his wife came to the Holy City as a penniless
young couple who yearned for holiness and spiritual elevation. They
found it, but far more importantly, R' Yosef Chaim became the guide and
leader who enabled thousands of others to find it as well.
During his lifetime, the image of Jerusalem changed. For centuries it
had been a fantasy city of saints and scholars, more a spiritual goal
than a geographical entity, but in the second half of the nineteenth
century, its population grew and its boundaries expanded. There was a
new interest in its institutions, and groups of European Jews attempted
to guide Jerusalem into the modern era. But was it Jerusalem's role to
become another Berlin or St. Petersburg? The main battleground became
the schools, as European-backed newcomers attempted to entice the Holy
City's young into their schools. As the decades went on, new antagonists
endangered the city's traditions: British conquerors, Arab terrorists,
secular nationalists. Throughout the adult life of Rav Sonnenfeld the
battles went on. The antagonists and issues varied, but the central
question was the same: Would Jerusalem remain anchored in eternity or
would it become a modern city?
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the young immigrant from
Hungary, was at the center of these struggles. At first, he was an
obedient disciple of his revered masters; but when the time came for him
to lead, he led consummately against impossible odds. It is
extraordinary that even when the struggle was bitterest, R' Yosef Chaim
the man was revered and beloved even by his adversaries. Rarely has a
leader blended so well compassion with strength, saintliness with
shrewdness, tolerance with ideology, scholarship with the common touch,
understanding with zeal. He was above politics and personalities,
unyielding on principles, and this makes his personal tenderness all the
more remarkable. He endangered his health by walking several miles in a
drenching rain to arrange hospital care for a man who detested
everything he stood for. To R' Yosef Chaim it was inconceivable to do
otherwise. Perhaps the greatest testimony to his greatness is that so
many antagonistic groups have claimed him as their own.
This book is the portrait of a truly remarkable human being, but it is a
significant historical document as well. Many of the social, political,
and religious struggles in the Israel of today are outgrowths of the
conflicts chronicled in this work. The viewpoint of the "Old Yishuv"
has, perhaps, never been presented as objectively and authoritatively in
English as here. Consequently, Guardian of Jerusalem is required reading
for anyone who wants to peel away the passions and prejudices of
Israel's headlines in order to achieve an in-depth understanding of the
Guardian of Jerusalem is adapted from the best-selling, highly regarded
three volume Hebrew biography HaIsh al HaChomah, by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman
Sonnenfeld, a great-grandson of R' Yosef Chaim. Himself a highly
regarded Talmid Chacham and an active figure in Jerusalem's scholarly,
economic, and political life, Rabbi Sonnenfeld devoted years of diligent
and unremitting research to his widely acclaimed magnum opus. We are
grateful to Rabbi Sonnenfeld for his help and cooperation in producing
this book. A gracious and perceptive gentleman, he spared no effort to
help us produce a book that was faithful to the truth and the ideals of
its subject. To the extent that we have succeeded, much of the credit is
his. In the interest of brevity and readability, the English version
omits most of the source material, but the Hebrew version is extensively
documented and the reader is urged to consult it when sources or
elaboration are desired.
Rabbi and Mrs.Shlomo Goldhaber prepared a first draft of a good deal of
the book. Their work is a significant factor in the success of the final
Rabbi Hillel Danziger labored long and well to capture the essence of
the much longer Hebrew original. The finished product is the best
testimony to his skill.
Rabbi Yehezkel Danziger edited the book with the combination of
scholarship and judgment that is familiar to those who know his
masterful work in the ArtScroll Mishnah Series.
Rabbi Noach Orlowek of Jerusalem read the manuscript carefully and
perceptively and made vital suggestions. Yehoshual Fieldsteel assisted
in portions of the translation and offered valuable ideas.
This book is another glittering testimonial to the graphics artistry of
Reb Shea Brander who continues to be a leader in restoring the beauty of
the book to the people of the book.
We are grateful to the Mesorah staff for its dedicated assistance, often
under difficult conditions, with the goal of producing a work worthy of
its subject: Rabbi Avie Gold, Stephen Blitz, Yosef Timinsky, Shimon
Blitstein, Mrs. Esther Feierstein, Chanee and Lea Freier, Edel Streicher,
Shonnie Glatzer, and Mrs. Faigie Weinbaum.
Finally, we thank Hashem Yisborach for granting us the privilege of
conveying the word of His Torah and the greatness of its bearers.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman/Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz
General Editors Kislev 5744/November 1983 Brooklyn, New York
FOR OVER EIGHT hundred years, Central Europe served as a haven for the
Jewish people in exile and for many of those centuries this region was a
thriving, vibrant center of Torah life. During this period, the area was
distinguished by the prominence of its rabbonim, with many of Jewry's
most noted luminaries serving there in that capacity. The is today
Czechoslovakia was especially blessed with famous rabbonim, such as R'
Yehudah Loewe the Maharal of Prague (d. 1609); R' Yechezkel Landau -
the Noda B'Yehudah1 - who also
served as Rav of Prague (d. 1793); and R' Moshe Sofer the Chasam Sofer
(d. 1839) who served for many years not only as Rav of Pressburg
(Bratislava) and Rosh Yeshivah of her world-famous Yeshivah, but as the
leader of all Hungarian and Czechoslovak Jewry. The spirit of Torah,
piety and scholarship generated by these giants spread far beyond their
immediate surroundings, pulsating through the land and penetrating the
farthest recesses of her Jewish population. It is thus not surprising,
and perhaps only fitting, to find that R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the
great gaon and tzaddik who fought so valiantly to preserve the sanctity
of Jerusalem and to insure that her unique holy character would not be
lost during her re-emergence as the living center of world Jewry, was
born in the Slovakian town of Verbau.
1( It was common, and still is, for great
Torah leaders to be known by the title of their most famous book. Noda
B'Yehudah is the title of a book of responsa written by R' Yechezkel
Verbau itself contained one of the oldest and largest Jewish
communities in the Neitra region. It boasted an impressive list of
renowned rabbonim including R' Koppel Charif, R' Binyomin Zev Loew, and
R' Chaim Zvi Mannheimer. R' Koppel Charif was one of the outstanding
disciples of the famed Noda B'Yehudah. Early in his tenure as Rav of the
community and head of its yeshivah [5552-5596 (1792-1836)], the yeshivah
became the most prestigious yeshivah in all of Hungary, both in the size
of its student body and in the advanced level of its study. Though its
prominence was eventually eclipsed by the Pressburg yeshivah when it
came under the direction of the great Chasam Sofer in 1807, there
continued to be a steady exchange of students between the two
One of the members of R' Koppel's beis din was R' Chaim's paternal
grandfather, R' Shmuel Nadish, who served there briefly. He was among
the pioneering students who helped establish the Chasam Sofer's yeshivah
in 1807 and he was one of the great master's closest disciples. R'
Shmuel was offered rabbinic posts in many large and prosperous
communities in Austria and Hungary but refused them all, quoting the
Mishnah, ''Were you to give me all the gold, silver, and jewels in the
world I could still not be induced to live anywhere but in a place
permeated with Torah" (Avos 6:9).
St. Jergin was a summer resort town near Pressburg famous for its
mineral baths. Its proximity to the great Torah center made it the
regular vacation spot for many Torah scholars and leaders but the pride
of the town was that the great Chasam Sofer would vacation there every
year. During these vacations, R' Moshe Sofer was temporarily free of
some of his communal responsibilities and he thus found time to write.
Most of his commentary on the Talmud, as well as a significant number of
his responsa, were written there. No surprise then that when the
community of St. Jergin offered its rabbinic post to R' Shmuel Nadish in
1811, he could not refuse the opportunity to move to the environs of his
great rebbi, the Chasam Sofer, and he accepted the position. The town
also reaped the benefit of this close association because it was partly
due to the great bond between R' Sofer and R' Shmuel Nadish that the
Chasam Sofer continued to choose the town as his vacation place. There,
the two would take long walks together through the surrounding woods,
discussing points of Torah and marveling at the wonders of G-d's
There are more than twelve hundred pages of Chiddushei Torah from the
pen of R' Shmuel Nadish still extant in manuscript form. They portray
their author as one of the great Acharonim, possessing a deep grasp and
encyclopedic knowledge of Torah literature. From the many responsa sent
by the Chasam Sofer to R' Shmuel it is clear that his rebbi considered
him not only a distinguished student but also a respected equal. And
when this great scholar was taken from the world at the age of
fifty-eight, a grief-stricken R' Moshe Sofer personally eulogized his
beloved pupil and friend. He then arranged that the post left vacant by
R' Shmuel's untimely passing be filled by the Maharam Schick, one of the
luminaries of that generation.
R' SHMUEL WAS SURVIVED by his outstanding son, R' Avrohom Shlomo
Sonnenfeld. Like his father, he too was among the cream of the Chasam
Sofer's students. Even as a child R' Avrohom Shlomo would delight the
Chasam Sofer with his clever answers to Torah riddles. Once, while
walking in the woods with his father and the Chasam Sofer, the youngster
impulsively kissed the hem of the Chasam Sofer's coat. In answer to the
questioning looks of the adults, he blushingly explained that he was but
kissing the cover of a Sefer Torah!
R' Avrohom Shlomo was very righteous and otherworldly, shunning the
mundane and devoting himself exclusively to Torah study. He was very
close to his other great teacher R' Binyomin Zev Loew, the Rav of Verbau,
and R' Binyomin Zev prepared his lectures with him and was assisted by
him in their delivery. Indicative of the great esteem in which R'
Avrohom Shlomo was held by his master is the fact that three-quarters of
R' Binyomin Zev's monumental work, Shaarei Torah, was arranged by R'
R' Avrohom Shlomo's wife, Zelda, was the daughter of R' Aharon, a
prominent member of the Verbau community and himself a great Torah
scholar. This extraordinary woman was possessed of an unshakable faith
and trust in G-d.
She bore her husband three children Shmuel, followed by a daughter,
Yetel, and then, on the sixth of Kislev 5609 (1848), Chaim.2
Chaim was his parents' pride and joy. When Reb Avrohom Shlomo would go
to the beis midrash to study with his rebbi, he would take his
 R' Chaim's given name was just Chaim and it was by
this name that he was known to his family and intimates. The name Yosef
was added later in life during a serious illness.
little son along with him so that the words of Torah would fill the
child's ears. R' Binyomin Zev would often ask little Chaim questions
from the Chumash and, receiving brilliant answers, he would say to the
proud father, "This youngster will one day be a great man and will
illuminate the world with his Torah and wisdom."
GREAT PEOPLE are not simply born; they must be forged to greatness,
often by the difficulties and tragedies of life. The forging of R'
Chaim's soul began early in youth. The stormy and turbulent waves of
life swept over him while he was still a child and at the tender age
when most children still bounce on their father's knees Chaim, not quite
six years old, was left an orphan by his father's untimely death. This
tragic event and its consequences left a deep impression on the boy.
Zelda, Chaim's righteous mother, piously accepted G-d's judgment and
proceeded to fill the dual roles of father and mother. She peddled
merchandise around the city in order to provide for her young children
and bore her great sorrow with dignity and fortitude.
Her trust in G-d was so steadfast that as soon as she earned enough to
provide for the rest of the week she would gather up her merchandise and
return home to supervise the care of her children. Adopting the attitude
of "Blessed is G-d day by day" (Psalms 68:20), she refused to worry
about the following week's income, leaving that up to the "Father of
orphans and Protector of widows." She bore this heavy burden
courageously for two years, all the time trying hard to overcome her
sorrow and make peace with her fate. Finally, however, she recognized
that her frail constitution and broken heart would be insufficient to
insure the survival of her three orphans, and so it was that she
accepted a proposal of marriage from an upright and well-to-do man who,
though not a talmid chacham, was willing and able to assume the
responsibility of raising her children.
FOLLOWING HER MARRIAGE she moved to Semenitz, her new husband's town.
There, a law mandating compulsory secular education was m effect and
Chaim was sent to a public school. Chaim's unusual mental gifts drew the
attention of his teachers, who remarked that they had never before met
such a brilliant mind. Chaim especially excelled in mathematics where he
would offer the solution to a problem before the instructor had even
completed presenting it. Once, the instructor presented an extremely
complex problem and gave the class three hours to solve it. As the
teacher finished explaining the problem, a smile passed over Chaim's
face. The instructor noticed the smile, and, knowing the impossibility
of a solution in so short a time, saw an opportunity to finally teach
this "impudent" genius a lesson.
With a glint of triumph in his eye he turned to Chaim and said
mockingly, "Well, Chaim, do you think you can answer this one so
Blushing, Chaim modestly replied, "I don't see that this particular
problem is any more difficult than the previous ones."
He immediately presented a brilliant solution to the utter
amazement and consternation of his instructor.
Young Chaim's public school attendance was, however, secondary to his
studies at the local elementary yeshivah, where he was soon recognized
as its most capable student. His application was truly extraordinary
and, in contrast to other children his age, he had no interest at all in
child's play. Each free moment was spent reading. In the few days
between his arrival in Semenitz and his enrollment in the local school,
the eight-year-old boy spent his time writing comments and gematrios
(observations based on the sum of the numerical values of the letters of
a word or phrase) on the margin of a copy of Shaarei Zion (a commentary
on the prayers), also adding a poem about the concept of prayer as "the
service of the heart!"
In his eleventh year, he graduated from both the local yeshivah and
secular school with honors. Chaim's heart was set on pursuing his Torah
studies in an advanced yeshivah but Chaim's secular teachers, awed by
his brilliant mind and seeing a great future for him in the sciences,
strongly urged his stepfather to enroll him at a secular institute of
Although a G-d-fearing and well-meaning man, Chaim's stepfather was
persuaded by their arguments. Chaim's older brother, who was at that
time somewhat swept up in the prevailing spirit of the times, also
supported the idea and the two decided to send Chaim to a secular high
school. Knowing Chaim's piety and devotion to Torah, they decided to
conceal their plans from him and present him with a fait accompli.
Chaim, however, found out about their plans and set himself to foiling
them at any cost.
He went around sad and depressed for many days, seeing no way out. He
realized that he was dealing with a stepfather who could not be expected
to show great concern for his personal ideas and aspirations during such
economically difficult times. Out of concern for the continued harmony
of the family, therefore, it was almost unthinkable for him to oppose
the decision of his stepfather and older brother. Besides, Chaim's
personal plans were beset with difficulties; yeshivos in those days had
no dormitory or dining facilities and this virtually precluded a young
orphan with no independent means of support from attending one of the
many yeshivos in Hungary or Slovakia.
His mother also secretly cried over the plans being made for her son's
future. She had always been aware of her son's refined character and she
had hoped that this would lead him to become a great talmid chacham in
the manner of his father and grandfather. She had fervently prayed to
G-d, the Father of all orphans, that she be able to raise her Chaim to
be such a talmid chacham, yet she felt it impossible to argue with her
husband over the matter. How could she think of making further financial
demands upon her second husband regarding the future of his stepson,
especially when her own ideas for his future were so full of pitfalls
As mothers will, she soon sensed her son's sadness. She pressed him to
confide in her the cause of his depression and he seized upon the moment
to express his deep anguish over the course being prepared for him
against his will by his stepfather and brother. She lent a willing ear
to his plea that he be allowed the opportunity to continue to study the
holy Torah whose beauty he had just begun to perceive. This, he
declared, was his sole ambition in life.
Chaim's mother was overwhelmed by her son's spirit and clear perception
of his true calling in life. Tears of joy streamed from her tired eyes
and, holding him tightly she assured that she would do everything in her
power to enable him to continue learning in a yeshivah. She confided in
him how this had always been her own dream, too, and that this hope had
sustained her through all the grief and anguish that had plagued her
life since the death of Chaim's father.
From that moment on, she committed herself to assuring Chaim of his
rightful Torah heritage and she decided to send Chaim to the yeshivah of
his birthplace, Verbau.
SHORTLY THEREAFTER, the famous gaon and tzaddik R' Yehudah
Assad [5555-5626 (1795-1866)] passed through Semenitz. R' Yehudah
TzAdcUk's Assad had been the Rav of Semenitz from 5594 to 5614.
(1834-1854) and during the twenty years his leadership had graced the
community he had transformed the city
into a great Torah center, directing a yeshivah for outstanding students
there. His visit now six years after his departure understandably
generated great excitement throughout the community. The entire city
men, women and children turned out to greet this holy man.
Shortly after the tzaddik reached his lodgings, it was surrounded by
throngs of people who wanted to receive his blessing. R' Yehudah was
famous for the power of his blessings and it was widely accepted that
anyone who merited to be blessed by him was assured that Torah would
always be a part of his life. Fathers placed their children on their
shoulders and strained forward to receive the godly man's blessing but
R' Yehudah was fatigued from his long journey and the strain and tumult
of the welcoming reception, and he declined to receive anyone.
Tossed about and almost crushed by this great crowd was a frail young
lad whose father's shoulders lay in their final resting place in the
cemetery of Verbau. As the mass of admirers began to disperse one by one
to return home empty-handed, one young and now somewhat battered orphan
remained fixed in his place. Long after everyone else had departed,
Chaim steadfastly refused to leave without receiving the tzaddik's
blessing. Somehow, word of this remarkable lad reached the attention of
R' Yehudah Assad and, to the astonishment of his attendants, he asked
for the youngster to be brought in.
Awestruck, Chaim entered, his teeth chattering with fright, and
extended his thin hand to the tzaddik who grasped it warmly. When R'
Yehudah learned that Chaim was a grandson of the great R' Shmuel Nadish,
he placed both his hands on Chaim's head and blessed him with great love
Inspired by the tzaddik's blessing, a new spirit took hold of Chaim. He
strengthened his resolve to attend a yeshivah, now feeling certain that
nothing could thwart his plan. Many times in his long and turbulent life
he would fondly recall and tell of the great moment when the tzaddik's
hands rested on his head in blessing.
FROM THE TIME he graduated public school at age eleven until just
before his bar mitzvah, Chaim studied diligently under R' Yehudah Leib
Lefler, the Rav of Semenitz. He utilized this period to prepare himself
both psychologically and academically to achieve his cherished goal of
entering an advanced yeshivah. His mother quietly and unobtrusively
assisted him towards this end. At her suggestion, he waited until just
before his bar mitzvah to make his move. This transformed his bar
mitzvah into a landmark signaling the beginning of his independent
manhood; from then on he alone would determine his life's direction. His
yearning for this great day caused the intervening time to drag on
almost interminably. He would later joke about this period that he had
already experienced "length of days" in his early adolescence.
At long last the awaited day arrived Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5622
(1861), a mere five weeks before his bar mitzvah. That night, both Chaim
and his mother slept fitfully. At dawn, Chaim jumped from his bed and
tiptoed to his mother's room to see whether she was already awake. As he
entered the corridor he detected a soft sound coming from the kitchen
and there he found his mother bent over her Korban Minchah siddur
pouring out her heart to her Creator by the light of a small kerosene
lamp. Chaim stood transfixed in the doorway of the kitchen watching the
tears stream down her cheeks. All the years of her widowhood and his
orphanage seemed to condense into these few long moments. Suddenly,
Chaim's mother became aware of his presence and as she turned towards
him with her loving gaze her resolve began to falter. The courageous
woman who had risen above her many trials with strength and dignity now
felt unsure about her ability to endure separation from her adored son.
Doubts began to assail her who knew if this poor and lonely orphan
would be able to surmount the great hardships that confronted a yeshivah
bochur in those days? Nervously, she began describing to Chaim the
difficulties and hardships awaiting him at the yeshivah. When she
finished speaking they both remained silent, her searching eyes
attempting to read the boy's thoughts.
"Well, Chaim my dear son, what have you decided?" she asked.
"I am going to Verbau." he answered quietly but in a way that left no
doubt as to the finality of that decision.
Chaim then davened Shacharis, ate a hasty breakfast, and set out
together with a companion for Verbau. They were escorted part of the way
by Chaim's mother who quietly recited Tehillim along the way. After a
short distance, Chaim implored his mother to return home. His remarkably
mature words calmed her anxious spirit and, reassured, his mother kissed
him tenderly on his forehead and returned tearfully home.
THE TWO BOYS reached the great yeshivah of Verbau, then under the
leadership of R' Chaim Zvi Mannheimer, towards evening. Rabbi
Mannheimer had been a colleague of Chaim's father
and the two had been regarded as among the most
outstanding students of R' Binyomin Wolf Loew.
Rabbi Mannheimer was considered one of the greatest Talmudic authorities
in Hungary at that time. When he first got married, he supported himself
by conducting a small business while devoting the major portion of his
time to studying Torah. But after he was attacked and robbed of
everything he had, he was forced to assume a rabbinic position in
Shutteldorf in order to support his family. Later he moved to Verbau
where he headed the prestigious yeshivah for eighteen years before
assuming the rabbinate of the city of Ungvar in 1870, where he served
until his death in 1886.
The two boys were warmly received by Rabbi Mannheimer and he interviewed
them privately. Even at this first meeting, he exhibited a special
interest in the young son of his boyhood friend.
It was the unfortunate habit of many students in the undergraduate
yeshivos to take the measure of newcomers by peppering them with pointed
remarks. Although this treatment was hard enough on any new student, it
was doubly difficult on a boy whose modest, withdrawn nature and
unassuming and even unworldly demeanor made him a prime target for such
barbs. Chaim, who possessed these traits in full measure, was subjected
to a good deal of this adolescent harassment; nevertheless, he refused
to give in to this peer pressure and did not make the least change in
what he considered to be virtues rather than weaknesses. It is easy to
imagine how difficult it was for this poor orphan to gain acceptance
into the insular group of the yeshivah's top students.
HARD TIMES awaited him in other ways, too. There was then no such
thing as a yeshivah dormitory; yeshivah students had to rent their own
rooms around the city. Those from wealthier homes were able to afford
comfortable accommodations while those from poorer homes had to settle
for less. As a young penniless orphan from Semenitz, Chaim ended up in
what, for lack of a better term, was called a lodging. Chaim would come
there each night to rest his weary body on a wooden bed with a thin
mattress after a grueling fifteen-hour day of study. But it did not
really matter to him that much since he viewed sleeping only as a means
of restoring his strength to prepare for yet another wonderful day of
Torah study. He once jokingly remarked to his friends that the only
thing that bothered him about his accommodations was that he was unable
to properly fulfill the first passage of the Shulchan Aruch which stated
that, "One should strengthen himself like a lion (i.e., overcome his
natural laziness) to rise in the morning to perform the service of his
Maker." Chaim observed that between the cold of his room and the sorry
condition of his bed there was no inclination to overcome it was more
comfortable to get out of bed than to stay in it!
ALTHOUGH HE SUCCEEDED in reconciling himself to his dismal lodgings,
the lack of sufficient food bothered him greatly because it prevented
him from learning to his full capacity. Entire generations of yeshivah
students, scholars and sages were brought up on the ''teg' (days)
system. Yeshivos of that time did not have dining rooms; instead,
students were sent to eat in the homes of those people in the city
willing to take them. Participating residents of the city would inform
the yeshivah administrator how many "days" each week they would be able
to accommodate a bochur for the afternoon meal and the bochurim would
then be assigned to the various homes. Since the economic conditions of
those times prevented most families from being able to accept a bochur
for an entire week, it was not uncommon for a boy to eat at six or seven
different homes in one week. The natural embarrassment which our Sages
observed in one who must rely on someone else's generosity for his meals
was thus compounded sevenfold each week.
This "teg" practice greatly enriched the folklore of European yeshivos
with numerous anecdotes. These resulted from the wide range of attitudes
among the different hosts. Some frowned at the shy and embarrassed
bochur standing in the doorway waiting to be invited in while others,
who considered it a privilege to help a young man whose life was
dedicated to Torah, would try to add something special to improve the
quality of the meal which served as his main source of nourishment.
Although this often uncomfortable situation was the occupational hazard
of any bochur who left home to study wealthy or poor the maxim,
"Poverty seeks the poor" often proved all too true. It somehow turned
out that students from wealthier homes were received by more prosperous
families, able to provide good meals, while those from poorer homes were
significantly less fortunate. And though it was precisely the poor hosts
who most honored their young guests, the boys could never rid themselves
of the feeling that they were imposing undue hardship on these already
All this would at least have been tolerable had the number of available
slots equaled the number of meals needed. This, however, was seldom the
case and most bochurim received only three or four slots a week. Pupils
from well-to-do homes made up this shortfall by buying the necessary
food themselves but boys from poor families, whose allowances barely
covered the expenses of their trip to the yeshivah, found themselves in
This was the lot of Chaim who often fasted Mondays and Thursdays, not so
much out of piety as out of a lack of food. This slowed his progress
because he found it difficult to apply his customary concentration while
However, G-d soon took mercy on the poor orphan. Somehow, a woman in
Verbau learned of Chaim's plight and managed to sneak a loaf or two of
bread into his room each week without his ever discovering her identity.
NOW CONTENT AND HAPPY with his situation, Chaim made great
progress in his studies. His colleagues, though, did not regard him very
highly since never publicly distinguished himself in the Talmudic
discussions that took place in the
yeshivah. Rabbi Mannheimer, however, accurately assessed the hidden
greatness of his new student because, though Chaim rarely demonstrated
his ability to his peers, he made no attempt to hide his brilliance when
speaking to the Rosh Yeshivah.
The day finally arrived when Chain's true ability was publicly revealed,
perhaps by the purposeful design of the Rosh Yeshivah. During one of the
lectures attended by the entire yeshivah, the Rosh Yeshivah pointed out
a great many difficult questions and seeming contradictions in a
particularly complex sugya (Talmudic passage). The
difficulties were so great that the most advanced students remained
silent, unable even to attempt any answers. To the surprise of all
present, the Rosh Yeshivah turned to the frail, modest lad standing
quietly in the corner and said, "Come, Chaim, let us hear what you have
Though thoroughly embarrassed, R' Chaim felt obligated to heed
his rebbi's command and, to the amazement of all present, he proceeded
to give an acute and clear solution to all the problems. From then on
Chaim became the leading participant in all subsequent lectures and he
was soon recognized as one of the best students in the yeshivah.
It was customary before a festival for the bochurim to split up in
groups and go out to solicit funds for the city's poor in the
surrounding area. One day Chaim's group knocked on the door of a man who
attempted to engage them in a Talmudic discussion. The bochurim were not
in the frame of mind for a complicated and involved discussion and they
answered somewhat impudently to the effect that they were there to
collect charity, not to discuss learning. Chaim, who had remained silent
through most of the trip, felt that this was an inappropriate response
to an apparently learned
To spare the man embarrassment, Chaim engaged him in a wide-ranging
Talmudic discussion which showed his broad Torah knowledge. The man, who
was actually a great talmid chacham who happened to be vacationing in
the area, remarked to the group as they were about to leave, "This
youngster is as knowledgeable as the rest of you put together!" After
Purim, the man came to the Verbau Yeshivah to look for the young prodigy
who had so astounded him with the scope and depth of his knowledge.And
so the shy and modest Chaim progressed and became the mainstay of the
yeshivah until his opinions and insights were constantly sought by the
other students. The more he tried to hide his great ability, the more
recognized became the qualities of this boy whose "piety preceded his
In the yeshivah idiom of Hungary in those days, the title Rosh Yeshivah
was often bestowed by the students on their most outstanding colleague
as a tribute to his talents. After a mere one and half years in the
Verbau Yeshivah, Chaim, only fourteen and a half years old, received
RABBI MANNHEIMER'S yeshivah was one of the most famous and exclusive
yeshivos in Slovakia. Its course of study stressed a special blend of
incisive analysis, broad knowledge and extraordinary diligence, which,
in effect, limited enrollment to especially gifted and motivated
students. But because his lectures were brilliantly constructed and
heavily documented, even many of these students failed to grasp them
completely. Chaim's careful and meticulous notes on the lectures became
the reference for many of these students. Those manuscripts, still
extant, show a highly developed, beautiful and clear style of expression
as well as a mature and graceful handwriting difficult to believe of a
Rabbi Mannheimer felt especially close to Chaim and this feeling was
reciprocated by Chaim, to whom Rabbi Mannheimer and the students became
a sort of surrogate family.
THREE AND A HALF years passed and Chaim progressed so rapidly that he
outgrew the Verbau Yeshivah. He was already considered an accomplished
talmid chacham, expert in most of the Talmud, and he now set his sights
on the great Pressburg Yeshivah headed by the acknowledged leader of
Hungarian Jewry, the famed K'sav Sofer.
Parting from Rabbi Mannheimer was heartbreaking; he had grown so close
to him that it seemed to Chaim as if he were being orphaned a second
time. However, reflecting on the statement of the Sages, "Exile yourself
to a place of Torah" [as a necessary step towards attaining Torah
greatness] (Mishnah, Avos 4:14), Chaim reasoned that the more painful
the exile the more conducive it would be to attaining Torah greatness.
And if exile was to be his lot why not to the greatest training center
for Torah in all Hungary and Bohemia Pressburg.
His term in Verbau under the tutelage of Rabbi Mannheimer had
transformed the shy orphan from Semenitz into a young man of stature.
His diligence, piety, and righteousness were already legendary
throughout the Verbau region and common folk would press to receive his
blessing. Because such prominence was foreign to his nature, however,
they had to resort to all kinds of ruses to get him to utter a blessing
The day finally came for Chaim to depart for Pressburg and he went
trembling with emotion to receive Rabbi Mannheimer's farewell blessings.
With love and tenderness, the rebbi caressed his beloved pupil's pe'os
and spoke heartwarmingly to him. His words caused tears to roll down the
boy's blushing cheeks. Seeing this, the rebbi remarked that since, "The
gates of tears are never locked" (Talmud Berachos 32b) and "G-d is close
to the broken-hearted" (Psalms 34:19) and whose heart could be more
broken than that of an unfortunate orphan forced to leave what remained
of his home to come to a different city and be supported by strangers
the time was most appropriate for praying for his future.
He thereupon blessed Chaim that he should become a leader of his
people and remain "in the house of the L-rd all the days of his life"
(Psalms 24:4). Rabbi Mannheimer then gave him a parting gift, a
certificate in which he awarded Chaim the title "Chaver."3
Armed with the title and escorted by his rebbi's blessing, Chaim left
Verbau to spend Pesach with his mother in Semenitz.
THE GREAT JOY experienced by Chaim's mother upon being reunited with
her newly titled son, "HeChaver R' Chaim," was fitting compensation for
all the years of anguish and hardship she had endured since the death of
Chaim's father. Her lined face seemed to smooth out as she looked at her
beloved son and saw that an expression of kindness and holiness shone
beneath the pallor of his features.
In order to contain her emotions, she steered the conversation to the
normal concerns of a mother meeting a son after a long separation she
expressed her concern over his thin, pallid appearance. Chaim,
recognizing the true spirit of his mother, replied that, on the
contrary, had he returned home in robust health this would have been a
more serious cause for alarm since diligent Torah study saps a person's
strength. Thus, his poor physical condition was living proof that his
three and a half years at the yeshivah had been well spent. He then
handed his mother his cherished diploma.
After a short rest, he visited the local rav, R' Yehudah Leib Lefler,
with whom he had studied before going to the Verbau Yeshivah.
The rav received him warmly and proceeded to discuss with him various
Talmudic subjects. He was astounded by the brilliance and erudition of
his former pupil and how quickly he had become an accomplished lamdan.
He summoned Chaim's mother and said to her, "Be happy that you have
borne and raised this boy; he will be a source of great comfort to you.
Your eyes will yet behold your son among the Torah luminaries of the
And so it was. Zelda Sonnenfeld lived to a ripe old age and eventually
settled in Jerusalem where she saw her son in all his subsequent
greatness. She is buried on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in
 The first-level degree awarded in Central European
On the day after Pesach, Chaim again took leave from his mother and
headed for Pressburg. Since the new semester did not start until the
first of Iyar, he detoured and spent the remaining week in Verbau in the
company of his revered rebbi, R' Chaim Zvi Mannheimer. There Chaim made
use of the time to complete his final version of his rebbx's shiurim. On
Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 5625 (1865), he left Verbau for Pressburg.
EVEN MORE AMAZING than Chaim's early academic achievements is
the extraordinary level of piety he had reached at a young age. This is
attested to by an introduction which he wrote to his
notebook of chiddushim in 5625 (1865). It is difficult to
imagine such lines coming from the pen of anyone but a
mature, profound thinker and spiritual giant. Yet they were written by
Chaim when he was just sixteen:
Blessed is Hashem, G-d of Israel, Who has chosen us from among all the
nations and given us the Torah of truth which will never depart from us.
It is our very lives and our consolation from all our tribulations.
Torah has been sweeter to my palate than honey! Without it, man's stay
on this earth is vanity, for none of his accomplishments can be taken
with him to the grave ... Man's soul is destined to leave his body
behind and enter the World to Come about which our Sages teach, "In the
World to Come there is neither eating nor drinking, only the righteous
sitting crowned and reveling in the Divine light ..." (Talmud, Berachos
17a) But, due to our sins, the masses of people do not take this to
heart. Instead, they trade their eternal future for ephemeral pleasures
... Though they perform mitzvos and good deeds, they make the most
important things secondary ...
I express my boundless gratitude to G-d, Who has given me the
opportunity to make my place among those who dwell in the beis midrash
... and has been so bountiful to me to this very day.
I was orphaned from the crown of Torah scholars, my father, of blessed
memory, when I was not yet six years old and I was subjected to many
hardships before the age of thirteen. It was then that I returned to my
birthplace, Verbau, to study under Rabbi Mannheimer and understood
firsthand the dictum of our Sages, "All beginnings are difficult."
Despite the difficulties, I remained there, with G-d's help, for three
and a half years. Afterwards, by the grace of G-d, I came here to
Pressburg, a city overflowing with G-d's Torah, home to one of the
world's greatest yeshivos, whose students revel only in Torah study and
fear of G-d. How unable I was to grasp all this holiness at once! How
happy I am now to see my thirst for Torah quenched.
I do not know how I can demonstrate my humble appreciation to G-d. In
addition to everything else, He allowed me to find favor in the eyes of
kind people who have sustained me and given me a decent lodging filled
with holy books. How bountiful have You been to me, O L-rd! But I have
vowed not to lose sight of my goal. I will strive with all my might to
make Torah alone my guiding light and not secular disciplines. May G-d
never remove His kindness and goodness from me. May He grant me favor in
the eyes of men and may I never be idled from my holy endeavors until
the Redeemer comes to Zion. Amen.