|Born||January 1, 1923|
|Died||February 22, 2016 (aged 93)|
Avraham Shmuel Binyomin
Zalman Yeshaya Dovid
|Parents||Rabbi Moshe Sofer|
|Predecessor||Rabbi Moshe Sofer (II)|
|Other||Presiding member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah|
|Buried||Mount of Olives|
|Dynasty||Erlau / Chassam Sofer|
Yochanan Sofer (January 1, 1923 – February 22, 2016) was the Rebbe of the Erlau dynasty,which though not the largest in the number of its adherents is still a significant movement within Haredi Judaism. He was born in Eger (German: Erlau), Hungary, where his father and grandfather served as Grand Rabbis. After surviving the Holocaust, he continued their legacy by founding a yeshiva and a movement in their name, first in Hungary and then a few years later in Jerusalem, Israel.
Sofer was a great-great-grandson of Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762–1839), known as the Chasam Sofer. The Chasam Sofer was the Rav of Pressburg (present-day Bratislava) and the leading rabbinical figure of Orthodox Judaism in the Austrian Empire, as well as one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of his time.
The Chasam Sofer was succeeded as the rabbi of Pressburg by his son, Rabbi Samuel Benjamin Sofer (1815 – 1872), known as the Ksav Sofer. The Ksav Sofer had 10 children — 6 sons and 4 daughters. One of the sons, Rabbi Shimon Sofer, was born in 1850.
In 1881, Rabbi Shimon was appointed rabbi of the Hungarian city of Erlau (Eger). There he founded a large yeshiva, attended by elite Torah scholars from throughout Hungary. This yeshiva became a foundation of the Erlau dynasty, a branch and direct link to the philosophy and teachings of Rabbi Shimon's grandfather, the Chasam Sofer.
As Rabbi Shimon aged, he appointed his son, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (author of Yad Sofer) to be the active rabbi and dayan of Erlau. Rabbi Shimon continued to be referred to by his congregation with the revered and affectionate title of "Rebbe".
Rabbi Shimon led the Jewish community in Eger for some 64 years. He and his community were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1944. Soon thereafter, at the age of 94, Rabbi Shimon was murdered by the Nazis together with his son, Rabbi Moses Sofer, and many others from the city of Eger.
Yochanan Sofer was born to Rabbi Moses Sofer in the town of Eger in 1923. He received his rabbinical education from his father. He studied at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yosef Asher Pollack (1888–1944) (author of Shearis Yosef Usher) in the neighbouring town of Verpelét. He also studied for three years at the yeshiva of Rabbi Chaim Aharon David Deutsch (1898–1944) (author of Tvuas Goren) in Balassagyarmat.
While his father and grandfather were murdered at Auschwitz, the young Yochanan survived the war and returned to Eger to lead the survivors, who constituted barely a minyan. In 1946 he was asked to serve as rosh yeshiva of the year-old Yeshivas Chasam Sofer, the only yeshiva in Hungary at that time, which had been established by Rabbi Shmuel Binyanim Frey for 30 orphaned young men in Budapest. The first rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, son of the Nitra Rav, had returned to his community in Nitra, Slovakia, and the directors sought a descendant of the Chasam Sofer as their next rosh yeshiva. Sofer was willing to lead the yeshiva, but unwilling to leave his community in Eger. The directors next approached Rabbi Moshe Stern, the Debrecener Rav, another descendant of the Chasam Sofer, but he was also unwilling to abandon his community. The yeshiva directors came up with the solution of appointing both rabbis as rosh yeshiva, with Sofer serving as rosh yeshiva in the first part of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) and Stern serving for the second half of the week, and serving their respective communities the rest of the time. Sofer slept in the dormitory with the students and refused to accept a salary. He continued in this arrangement for a year and a half, after which he opened a yeshiva in Eger. After the Budapest yeshiva closed, the rest of the students moved to Eger.
In 1947, Rabbi Yochanan re-established the yeshiva in Eger with a small group of boys and adolescents (mostly orphans). He married and was appointed rabbi of the fledgling Orthodox Jewish community there.
Move to Israel
Due to the Communist grip on Hungary and oppression of Judaism there, Sofer assisted his students and members of his community to escape Hungary. In 1950, after the last Jew had left Erlau, Sofer immigrated to Israel together with his yeshiva. For a short period of time, the yeshiva merged with the Pressburg Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was headed by Rabbi Akiva Sofer (known as the Daas Sofer), a great-grandson of the Chasam Sofer. Rabbi Yochanan served there as a maggid shiur.
During this time, Rabbi Yochanan became a close disciple of Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe. Although Sofer's ancestors were not Hasidic and conducted themselves as rabbis, not rebbes, Sofer was influenced by the Belzer Rebbe and the Skverer Rebbe to adopt numerous Hasidic customs. Sofer named his youngest son Aharon after the Belzer Rebbe.
In 1953 Sofer founded the Erlau yeshiva and community in the Katamon neighbourhood of south-central Jerusalem, starting with the purchase of a few rooms in the building of the former Syrian Consulate on Yotam Street. The yeshiva was named the "High Yeshiva of Rabbi Akiva Eiger" after the father-in-law of the Chasam Sofer. Later this yeshiva expanded to the whole building, where Sofer founded a dormitory and orphanage for Holocaust survivors and students from needy families. According to the Jerusalem Post, "He never moved from the non-haredi neighborhood, unlike other hassidic leaders who once lived in the area but who moved to haredi neighborhoods elsewhere in Jerusalem."
In 1961, Sofer constructed a new building in the empty lot adjacent to the yeshiva. It was named Ohel Shimon-Erlau after his grandfather, Rabbi Shimon Sofer. This new campus includes a beth midrash, which serves until today as the main synagogue and study hall for the yeshiva gedola, a smaller study hall for the yeshiva ketana, dormitory, classrooms, library, kitchen and offices. In addition, Sofer opened the Institute for Research of the Teachings of the Chasam Sofer. This Institute researches and deciphers handwritten documents of the Chasam Sofer, his pupils and descendants. It has brought to light and printed hundreds of sefarim and distributed them worldwide.
a unique figure, beloved and admired by secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. With his pleasant ways, he represented both the Hasidim and Mitnagdim of Hungarian Jewry. The death of a public leader and head of a dynasty who was a Holocaust survivor and refugee who lost his father, mother and sisters in the labor and death camps, must also remind us of the respect and concern for the Holocaust survivors whose numbers are steadily dwindling, and the obligation to tell our people's history until the last generation.
Sofer set up a network of communities around Israel and abroad, including batei medrash (called by the name Yad Sofer), Talmud Torahs (known as Ksav Sofer) and kollelim (called by the name Chasam Sofer). The main communities are in Katamon, Ezrat Torah, El'ad, Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, Ashdod and Haifa. The community in Israel is estimated to number 500 families.
Sofer was known to the Jewish population as the Erlauer Rebbe (Yiddish) or Admor of Erlau (Hebrew). He was actively involved in all aspects of the yeshiva, giving daily shiurim to both students and elderly members of the Erlau community and surrounding neighbourhood, and prayed the daily prayers together with his pupils.
Opinion and politics
Sofer was considered a leading halakhic authority with enormous influence on the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as an expert in Israeli politics and security issues. He was often called upon to voice his opinion on global Jewish issues.
The Rebbe was appointed to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel by Rabbi Yisrael Alter (the Beis Yisrael) when he was only 38 years of age. At the time, the protocol was amended to allow this new member, as the original protocol allowed only rabbis above the age of 40 to join. He was also appointed a member of the administration of Mifal HaShas by that organization's founder, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe.
Before 1948, the rabbinical authorities of the Sofer family and their disciples strongly opposed the various forms of modern Zionism. They did not approve of the formation of a Jewish state nor the use of Hebrew for mundane purposes. Their firm belief was that the Mashiach must arrive prior to the liberation of the Holy Land and that the Hebrew language was designated solely for the use of Torah study and prayer. Once Israel declared independence in 1948, their approach remained the same, though the circumstances changed.
Sofer adopted the approach to Zionism similar to that of his rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach of Belz. This ideology allows for dialogue with the Zionist leaders and for representation in the Knesset, though it does not give mandate or any halachic justification to the legislative system of the State of Israel as it does not conform to the laws of the Torah. Sofer actively advocated for the sanctity of the Shabbat, the preservation of Torah Judaism, and the purity of the Holy Land.
Sofer's view of the Arab–Israeli conflict maintained that as a matter of Jewish law, any territorial concession on Israel's part would endanger the lives of all the Jews in the Land of Israel and was therefore forbidden. He also insisted that even discussing the possibility of such concessions shows weakness and would encourage Arab attacks, and thus endanger Jewish lives. He was quoted as saying to Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom: "I am not prepared to cede even one grain of the Land of Israel to the Arabs." Sofer was also opposed to the unilateral pullout from Gaza and was quoted as saying, "Whoever leads to the transfer (of Jews from parts of Israel) is destroying the country".
Despite some ideological differences, Sofer was respected by leaders of Orthodox Jewish communities, including Satmar, Edah HaChareidis, Litvish, Shas – Sefardim, Chabad-Lubavitch, and the National Religious Party / National Union.
Sofer was known to have had a strong relationship with the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (former Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of Shas) and with the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah.
While Sofer was a presiding member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel, the Erlau community is part of the Shlomei Emunim faction within the United Torah Judaism political party, representing all Agudath Israel factions. Shlomei Emunim is represented in the Knesset by Rabbi Meir Porush.
Upon the initiative of the Rebbe, the Erlau community took an active part in the launch of the HaMevaser newspaper in late 2008, which is owned and run by Rabbi Meir Porush.
The Rebbe also had a strong connection to the Jewish community of Hebron, which he visited every year on the Ten Days of Repentance. After prayers at the Tomb of Machpela, he would hold a "chocolate tish" in which he would bless each child and distribute chocolate to them. He also came out publicly against the Hebron Protocol of 1997 which divided the city into H1 and H2. The Jewish community of Hebron quoted him as stating, that if not for the existence of the Jewish community of Hebron, regular visits to the Tomb of Machpela would not be possible.
Sofer married Miriam Pall (d. 1999), daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Pall, a descendant of the Chasam Sofer's sister, in Erlau. Their first three sons were born in Erlau; they had seven sons in total:
- Rabbi Moshe Sofer, London, England (born 1947)
- Rabbi Yaakov Sofer, Rav of the Erlau community in Beitar Illit (born 1948)
- Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, Rosh Yeshiva of Erlau Yeshiva Gedola, Jerusalem, Israel (born 1949)
- Rabbi Shimon Sofer, Rav of Baka, Jerusalem, Israel (born 1951)
- Rabbi Akiva Menachem Sofer, Rav of the Erlau community in Bnei Brak, Israel (born 1953)
- Rabbi Zalman Sofer, Rav of the Erlau community in Borough Park, New York (born 1954)
- Rabbi Aharon Sofer, Rav of the Erlau community in Elad, Israel (born 1959)
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