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  Guardian of Jerusalem


Adapted by Rabbi Hillel Danziger from the three volume Hebrew biography
by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Zonnenfeld

© 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)
475 pages

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 Kook.

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.


Publisher's Preface

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 country.

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 version.
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 Landau)

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 institutions.

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 creation.

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' Avrohom Shlomo.

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

[2] 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 easily?"

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 higher education.

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 and hazards?

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 and affection.

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 decent and
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 impoverished families.

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 real difficulty.

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 fasting.

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 to say?"

 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 wisdom."

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 this accolade.

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 fifteen-year old.

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 about them.

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 world!"

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 Jerusalem.

[3] The first-level degree awarded in Central European yeshivos.

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.

Chaim Sonnenfeld



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