Rav Yitzchok Yechiel Ehrenfeld shares a peek into the private world of the Chasam Sofer
It wasn’t easy getting Rav Yitzchok Yechiel Ehrenfeld, the rav of Jerusalem’s Mattersdorf neighborhood and rosh yeshivah of Beis Shmuel, to talk about his great-great-great-great grandfather, the Chasam Sofer zy”a. It’s been 180 years since the Chasam Sofer’s passing (he passed away on 25 Tishrei, 1839), and we wanted to hear about some the traditions preserved in the family — and Rav Ehrenfeld himself is the seventh-generation maintaining the title of Mattersdorfer Rav (the title traveled through the generations from the Chasam Sofer’s first rabbinical position in Austria, to New York, to Jerusalem). But even during our conversation, he looked a bit worried.
Finally the apprehension became clear: The Rosh Yeshivah recounted that he had once seen an old video showing the Rav Akiva Sofer (known as the Daas Sofer — a great-grandson of the Chasam Sofer), sitting at the table of his son Reb Simcha Bunim in Lugano, together with Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld, the Rosh Yeshivah’s grandfather, famously known as the Mattersdorfer Rav. The video is without audio, but as they speak, they can be seen rising from their seats every few seconds. Why? Because they’d mentioned the name of the Chasam Sofer, and they wouldn’t invoke his name without rising from their chairs.
So even if you’re seven generations down the line from the Chasam Sofer, as is Rav Yitzchok Yechiel Ehrenfeld, the yiras kodesh is so deeply ingrained that it is only with great reluctance that you can bring yourself to speak of him.
“The Chasam Sofer was the ‘Rabban shel Bnei HaGolah,’ in every respect,” says Rav Ehrenfeld, whose great-great-great grandmother was the Chasam Sofer’s daughter Hindel, who married Rav David Tzvi Ehrenfeld, av beis din and rav of Pressburg (today Bratislava, Slovakia). The Chasam Sofer established the Pressburg Yeshivah, which became the most influential yeshivah in Central Europe.
“He led the greatest yeshivah in the world in his time, and he wrote that he was an actual witness to what Chazal say about space ‘stretching’ in the Beis Hamikdash, where the Yidden stood without any space between them yet there was room for everyone to bow. Writes the Chasam Sofer: ‘And Hashem knows that my eyes have seen this thing, which I can’t explain because of the profane among us.’
“Most people believe he was referring to his famed yeshivah in Pressburg, where he moved from Mattersdorf,” Rav Ehrenfeld explains, “but one of the Chasam Sofer’s close talmidim said that it was actually in Mattersdorf. My father, Rav Akiva Ehrenfeld ztz”l, who was 15 when the family fled Mattersdorf, knew the shul well, and my grandfather Rav Shmuel [known as the Mattersdorfer Rav even after the family escaped Austria and arrived in New York] lived in the same house the Chasam Sofer had lived in. The beis medrash wasn’t much bigger than this room — but it held 400 students.”
Two centuries after he lived, the Chasam Sofer today is primarily known as the posek of his generation and a guiding light for Torah Jewry facing the Enlightenment and the spiritual challenges than came along with modernity, but what is less known is that, perhaps first and foremost, he was a rosh yeshivah and teacher of Torah, producing hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry.
Regarding the yeshivah in Mattersdorf that held a special place in the Chasam Sofer’s heart, Rav Ehrenfeld heard the following story from his grandfather: One day, Rav Shimon Sofer — the Chasam Sofer’s son, who was a rav in Krakow — told his children, “We’re traveling to Mattersdorf.” Back then, it was a week-long journey each way, and his family wondered about the urgency of the trip. He told them he’d received an invitation to the 100th birthday celebration of a Jew in Mattersdorf, and he was going to attend. “My father once asked a wealthy Jew in Mattersdorf to build a dormitory for the students of the yeshivah there,” Rav Shimon Sofer explained to his family. “This man told my father, ‘Fine, but only if you bless me with long life.’ My father was humble and didn’t like to give blessings, but after a while, he turned to the gvir again, and the gvir again answered, ‘Rebbi, I told you I would donate, on condition you bless me with long life.’ My father had no choice, so he gave the brachah. And it’s the same Yid. So we’re going to see my father’s brachah being fulfilled.”
Greater than Ne’ilah
The Chasam Sofer was appointed rav of the original town of Mattersdorf (today Mattersburg, Austria) in 1797. He established his first yeshivah there, and subsequently received many offers for the rabbinate all over Europe, which he declined. In 1806, however, he accepted an invitation to Pressburg, where he established his famed yeshivah. At the time, he’d been married to his first wife for over two decades, but she passed away childless. He then married the widowed daughter of Rabi Akiva Eiger, with whom he had three sons (Avraham Shmuel Binyamin, known as the Ksav Sofer; Shimon, known as the Michtav Sofer, who became rav of Krakow; and Yozef Yozpa, a merchant) and seven daughters. He lived in Pressburg for 33 years, from where his influence spread, until his passing in 1839.
The yeshivah was his flagship institution, not only for its high level of Torah scholarship, but as a bastion of spirituality at a time when foreign winds began to blow.
“Some talmidim of the Divrei Chaim were once stuck in Pressburg over Shavuos,” Rav Ehrenfeld says, “and when they returned to the Divrei Chaim in Sanz, he asked them: ‘What did you see when you were with the Chasam Sofer?’ And they said ‘His extraordinary love for Shavuos, was greater than ours for Ne’ilah.’
The first rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld, the Chasam Sofer’s oldest grandchild and known as the Chasan Sofer, was especially dear to his grandfather. “It’s related that one year some talmidim spent Pesach Seder with the Chasan Sofer and Shvii shel Pesach with the Chasam Sofer. The Chasam Sofer asked them what they heard from his grandson on Seder night, and he was surprised by the answer. They related the verse, ‘Our ancestors originally were ovdei avodah zarah, and now Hashem has brought us into His service.’ It should have said ‘to serve Him’ — at first we were idol worshippers, and now we serve Him. Why does it say, ‘brought us into His service?’
“But the Chasan Sofer explained that now Hashem is ‘doing service’ — in the Ribbono shel Olam’s tefillin it says ‘Mi K’amcha Yisrael.’ We have become Hashem’s ‘project,’ to which He provides service.
“It was interesting, because the Chasam Sofer himself had a very ‘simple’ Seder. When my grandfather Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld was a bochur, he once asked the Chasam Sofer’s daughter, the Rebbetzin Simcha — he called her ‘Aunt Simcha’ but she was really his great-great aunt — how her father led the Seder. She said to him, ‘I’ll bet you imagine he recited deep insights in Torah? No, he explained the story of the Seder to the children in simple German, Yiddish-German. That was until midnight. But then, after midnight, his face became like an angel’s and you couldn’t look at him anymore. He himself would ask those present, Why aren’t you looking at me?’
“In fact, I heard from my zeide that the Chasam Sofer once said of himself, ‘I can’t say to what lengths I go so that people will be able to look in my eyes.’”
True, Rav Ehrenfeld concedes, this is a third-hand account, but he personally heard it from his grandfather, who heard it from Aunt Simcha. She was a source of a lot of information because she lived a long life and was a bridge to several generations.
“She also recounted that every day he would come home from his shiur soaked from the exertion. He wore a big scarf that you could literally wring the wetness out of,” the Rosh Yeshivah says. But he notes that, all the stories of the Chasam Sofer notwithstanding, in their family they don’t bother mentioning any of them unless the source has been substantiated.
“For example, there was a story with Rav Zalman Sofer, one of the greatest talmidim of the Chasam Sofer. It was understood among the Chasam Sofer’s intimates that every Shabbos night he retired to his room alone and couldn’t be disturbed under any circumstances. Rav Zalman was curious, though, and one time he hid in the closet beforehand and saw how the Chasam Sofer was learning. This is how I’ve heard it recounted, I don’t know how others have told it. He heard ‘Amar Abaye, Abaye amar, amar Abaye, Abaye amar, amar Abaye — Abaye omer!’ Then he saw a tongue of flame and fainted and tumbled out of the closet.
“After they revived him he said to the Chasam Sofer, ‘It’s true that I sinned against you, but now that I saw it anyway, maybe you can tell me what was happening?’ The Chasam Sofer replied, ‘It says in Yerushalmi that a person should imagine to himself that the tzaddik he’s quoting is standing before him. I ‘pulled’ Abaye here…”
This ability to connect in an almost tangible way with the tzaddikim of the past might have been one reason the Chasam Sofer put such a big emphasis on the rav/talmid relationship. It’s well-known how, when he was just nine years old, he left home to follow his rebbi, Rav Nathan Adler, who was a great scholar as well as a kabbalist. And when it came to his own teaching, he never once missed a daily shiur, except for Tishah B’Av night (he even delivered a shiur on the night of Yom Kippur).
The Chasam Sofer attributed his own dedication to Torah to his mother, who encouraged him to follow his rabbanim even as a young child. He writes of his mother that Hashem never brought a great event to the world without revealing it to her in her dreams beforehand.
“When she was about to give birth to the Chasam Sofer on Erev Shabbos Shuvah, on the 7th of Tishrei, she sent word to the shul in Frankfurt not to start Kabbalas Shabbos, that they shouldn’t take on Shabbos yet in order not to cause anyone involved in the birth chillul Shabbos,” says the Rosh Yeshivah.
His daughters were also connected to him in a deep, spiritual way. “He once revealed himself in the middle of the night to his oldest daughter, the Bobbe Hindel, the mother of our elter zeide the Chasan Sofer, and told her, ‘Your son is in danger!’ She immediately got up and discovered that he had been learning late into the night with a candle in his hand and when he dozed off, a fire began. Until the last day of his life, his beard was missing a corner. And the Gemara he was learning, a Gemara Berachos, was totally burnt. My grandfather kept that Gemara until they had to flee Europe — it was a token of the miracle.”
The Chasam Sofer wrote the names of his children in his Mohel book after they were born. For all of them he wrote: “May Hashem merit me to accompany him/her to the chuppah.” According to the Rosh Yeshivah, when his daughter Simcha (Lehman) was born he wrote: “May Hashem merit me to raise her,” but didn’t write “and accompany her to the chuppah.” In the end, he did bring her to the tena’im but passed away before he was able to accompany her to the chuppah.
According to the Rosh Yeshivah, the Chasam Sofer didn’t have ruach hakodesh in the classic sense, but, he says, where he went, that’s where kedushah went. In one of his writings, the Chasam Sofer related that during a war that was raging then, not a single house in Pressburg escaped damage, except the four houses between his own home and the shul.
“Still, the Chasam Sofer writes that not a single Jew was hurt — there was property damage but no loss of life — except for one man, whom he singles out by name. And what was his sin? His wife incited him to lobby the municipality to raise the cost of rent, which made it harder for the poor to secure housing.
“The Chasam Sofer writes something quite gruesome about it: The man was hit by shrapnel in the leg, and they had to operate to save him. But they didn’t have anesthetics, and nine men had to hold him down as they operated. It didn’t help and he died from the shock. The Chasam Sofer mentions his name, because although he died due to his sins, he did teshuvah after he was injured.”
Rav Ehrenfeld says that he has been personally inspired to learn from some traditions of the Chasam Sofer. “For example, I saw in the memorial volume Zichron Moshe that when the Chasam Sofer fled from the city during wartime, he was out of Pressburg for several weeks. There was one Erev Shabbos in which he had no clothes to change into — he would have paid a fortune to have clean garments for Shabbos, but there was nothing to be had. Generally when I travel abroad, I always take as little luggage as possible, and sometimes skimp on the Shabbos clothes. But from the Chasam Sofer I understood that it’s worth it to bear the extra weight and expense if that’s the only way to make sure I have Shabbos malbushim.
“Another thing I learned is the importance of minhag. There’s a Shach in Yoreh Dei’ah that talks about taking a loaf of bread out of the oven and putting it straight onto the table — there was an avodah zarah that was similar to that. The Chasam Sofer, in the beginning of Hilchos Shabbos, refers to that in his note on Siman 242: Study the Shach in Yoreh Dei’ah. Later I saw a story, that after the Chasam Sofer’s wife passed away, he entered the kitchen on Erev Shabbos and saw his daughter laying the tray with the challahs on the floor and not on the table. ‘You saw your mother doing that!’ he cried. The Chasam Sofer himself was scrupulous about this, but also — ‘You saw your mother doing that!’— he expected his daughters to notice their mother’s actions. That’s a good code to maintain.”
There is a famous picture of the Chasam Sofer, but like so many gedolim of centuries past, there’s always a question of its authenticity. Rav Ehrenfeld says his family has what he believes is an original. “It’s a small picture, not the famous one, but a different one, from his old age. My grandfather asked the Chasam Sofer’s daughter, Aunt Simcha, about the famous one, and she said that she didn’t know about that one, but the other one she recognized, and that’s what he actually looked like. So that’s what we always took for his true portrait.”
But of course, it doesn’t really matter, since he was so much more than what any picture can portray. “The Chasam Sofer was a ‘carta d’kulei bei — a city containing everything.’ Everything was in him. We’ve heard how he’d mastered every nook and cranny of the Torah. That’s not a chiddush with gedolei Yisrael — perhaps his chiddush is the depths of his understanding, how the entire world was encapsulated in it. Rav Yosef Naftali Stern writes in his introduction to the Chasam Sofer’s derashos that he made a kamaya from all the gematrios and roshei teivos that the Chasam Sofer used to write. Each one plumbed the depths of the Torah’s meaning, cut to the root, to the foundations, with all that implies. So he had the entire world at his fingertips. All from kedushah.” —
Today, a modern Jewish memorial containing the Chasam Sofer’s grave and those of family members, is located underground in Bratislava, below the Bratislava Castle. The preservation of those graves, however, almost wasn’t.
In 1943, the Jewish cemetery in Bratislava (Pressburg) was confiscated by the Germans, who had already conquered Slovakia, in order to build a roadway. The Jews had not yet been evicted, and negotiations with the regime — accompanied by a large bribe — enabled the community to preserve the section of the cemetery including the Chasam Sofer’s grave, enclosed in concrete, below the surface of the new road. (It’s possible that they alone were afraid to tamper with the grave of such a holy person, so as not to have a curse fall on them.)
“Many years later,” says Rav Ehrenfeld, “when the Communists were in power, there was concern that the Chasam Sofer’s grave would be violated, and there were those who wanted to transfer the kever. But my grandfather, the Mattersdorfer Rav, the recognized authority among the grandsons of the Chasam Sofer wouldn’t agree to the evacuation.
Following the Declaration of Independence by Slovakia in 1992, negotiations were undertaken to restore public access to the preserved graves. In the mid-1990’s, a committee was formed to support and oversee relocation of the city’s light rail train tracks that had been built over the graves, and to construct a proper, befitting monument.
“I was there when they raised the cover, which was under the train tracks,” Rav Ehrenfeld says. “We came to an agreement with the government. It was a real miracle. They were willing to move the train tracks where they crossed directly over the kever. It was a massive job. This wasn’t just a street we were moving — it was a train-route. In the end we made something very nice and respectable for the kever, and we’re still in the middle of negotiations to buy a small plot nearby for the convenience of mispallelim.
Today, access to the mausoleum can be arranged through the local Jewish community organization.
Rav Yitzchok Yechiel’s grandfather, Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld — the Mattersdorder Rav and the great-great grandson of the Chasam Sofer — was named for his grandfather, Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld, the Chasam Sofer’s oldest grandchild, known as the Chasan Sofer. His son was Rav Simcha Bunim Ehrenfeld, known as the Ma’aneh Simcha. When he passed away in 1926, his son Rav Shmuel succeeded him as rav of Mattersdorf. The family fled Austria in 1938 and arrived in New York, where Rav Shmuel immediately set to work, establishing Yeshivas Chasan Sofer on the Lower East Side. He then moved to Boro Park.
In the early 1960s, Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld, who had been living in New York for about two decades, founded the Mattersdorf neighborhood in Jerusalem, and his son Rav Akiva Ehrenfeld was his father’s right-hand man. Among the institutions they established were Talmud Torah and Yeshiva Maaneh Simcha, the Neveh Simcha nursing home, and several shuls.
After Rav Shmuel passed away, his son Rav Akiva a”h moved to Kiryat Mattersdorf and served as president of all these institutions. He also founded Yeshivas Beis Shmuel, named for his father. But although a venerated talmid chacham in his own right, he declined to serve as the neighborhood’s rav or rosh yeshivah, passing on both positions to his son, Rav Yitzchok Yechiel.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792)
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