Rabbi Wolfensohn was born in Shklov, about 300 kilometers southeast of Vilnius in Lithuania, where he became a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman. The Gaon's followers came from the section of the community in Lithuania known as Mitnagdim (Opponents of the Hasidic movement) and were known as Perushim (Hebrew: פרושים).
The Gaon believed that the return of the Jews from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel would bring about the Messianic era. Influenced by the Gaon's vision, Wolfensohn founded an organization called Chazon Tzion ("Prophecy/Vision [of] Zion"), whose main principles included the ingathering of the Jewish exile.
In 1809, Rabbi Wolfensohn traveled to and settled in the Holy Land as a member of the first of three groups of Gaon disciples. These migrations are considered to be the beginning of the modern return of Jews to their ancient homeland. Included in the groups were members of the Wolfensohn, Ze'ev, Rivlin, Zeitlin and Bassan families—many of the descendants of these disciples became leading figures in modern Israeli society. Their arrival encouraged an Ashkenazi revival in the land which until this time was mostly Sephardi.
Facing an Ottoman ban on Ashkenazi Jews settling in Jerusalem, most of the Perushim, including the Wolfensohn family, settled in Safed, forming the basis of the Ashkenazi community there. Rabbi Wolfensohn became the first judge of the Perushim in Safed and was instrumental in ending the friction between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in the region.
His first marriage to Batya Brina bore three sons and a daughter. His wife and two of his sons were killed in the great Galilee earthquake of 1837, while Avraham was away in Europe collecting funds for the community. His son Zeev survived because he was studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem at the time.
Rabbi Wolfensohn then moved to Jerusalem where he married his second wife, Sheindel, with whom he had four children.
As leaders and members of the Perushim community, Rabbi Wolfensohn and his descendants (Wolfensohn, Woolfson, Wolfson, Ze'ev) had a significant influence both on the history of the Yishuv haYashan and the subsequent State of Israel, including:
- Assisting in the rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue, which had lain in ruin for 140 years.
- Settling the new neighborhoods of Nahalat Shiv'a and Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the first Jewish areas established outside the old walls of Jerusalem.
- Helping to found the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.
- Running the Moses Montefiore windmill in Jerusalem.
- Helping to found Bikur Holim Hospital, the first Jewish hospital in Jerusalem.
- Founding the first Jewish pharmacy in Palestine (Yehoshua Wolfinsohn, 1851–1924)
- Pioneering the printing industry in Palestine—including the production of the first Bible printed entirely by Jews in Palestine.
- Establishing the first institution for blind education in Palestine.
- Involvement in Civic Leadership (Mordechai "Max" Woolfson, 1900–1978—Town Clerk, Petah Tikva).
Most of Avraham's writings were on religious subjects and were destroyed in the earthquake in 1837. Only one of his manuscripts was saved, and was published after his death. Written mainly in Aramaic, the book contains a short description of Avraham's life. There are hardly any copies in existence, but one is known to be in the library of David Ben-Gurion, the late prime minister of Israel.
- Encyclopedia Lechaluts Hayishuv Uvonav: Demuyot Utemunot, by David Tidhar (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Rishonim, 1947–1971)
- Founders Memorial Museum of Petah Tikva (Yad Lebanim).
- Morgenstern, Arie: Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel Published in Hebrew, 1997, Jerusalem, Ma'or; Published in English, 2006, Oxford University Press.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, Ya'ari, Avraham. Talmidei Hagra Vehishtarshutam Ba'aretz.
- Berman, S. Mishpakhot K"K Shklov. Shklov, 1936. (H)