Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, On His Yahrtzeit, Today, 19 Adar


rav-yosef-chaim-sonnenfeldWhen faced with being drafted to the army in Hungary, young Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld went to the Divrei Chaim of Sanz to receive a bracha. The Divrei Chaim told him, “You will be general of the Yehudim in Eretz Yisroel.”

Rav Yosef Chaim was born in 1849 in Hungary. His father died when he was merely 4 years old. He spent a number of years learning in the famed Yeshiva of Pressburg under the Ksav Sofer the son of the Chasam Sofer. The Ksav Sofer recognized Rav Yosef Chaim’s capabilities early on and learn privately with him. He also gave him the honorable task of learning over his Shiurim with the other talmidim.

After Pressburg, learned under the one of the gedolim of Hungary at that time Rav Avrohom Shag. Rav Yosef Chaim was extremely loyal and devoted to his Rebbi and when his Rebbi set out on his lifelong dream of moving to Eretz Yisroel in 1873, Rav Yosef Chaim went with him. In the 20 years that Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin spent in Yerushalayim, Rav Yosef Chaim was considered among his closest talmidim.

Although Rav Yosef Chaim was extremely modest and low key, his greatness was recognized by the gedolim of his day. When the famed Aderes arrived in Yerushalayim in 1901, the Rov of Yerushalayim, Rav Shmuel Salant, told him that the greatest talmid chochom in Yerushalayim is Rav Yosef Chaim. In fact Rav Shmuel Salant asked Rav Yosef Chaim to serve as Rav of Yerushalayim in his place but Rav Yosef Chaim refused. After Rav Shmuel’s petira the position of Rov remained vacant while the zionist were making inroads in changing the religious nature of the city. Rav Yosef Chaim still refused to fill the void until he was literally forced to become Rov by Rav Yitzchok Yeruchom Diskin the son of Rav Yehoshua Leib.

Rav Yosef Chaim was legendary for his courageous battles against the zionist and his protection of the traditional chinuch of the children. In 1914 he made the rounds to many settlements in Eretz Yisroel together with a delegation of Rabbonim to encourage shmiras Shabbos and Mitzvos HaTeluyos Ba’Aretz, the mitzvos that pertain to agriculture.

The following story gives a hint to Rav Yosef Chaim ‘s mindset. He was once going on an important mission outside of Yerushalayim when it began to rain. The person accompanying him promptly opened up and umbrella to protect them from getting wet. Rav Yosef Chaim told him to close the umbrella. When he asked why, Rav Yosef said to him, “Have you ever seen a soldier in battle with an umbrella? We too are soldiers going to battle and we don’t need an umbrella!”

Rav Yosef Chaim was niftar on 19 Adar 5692/1932 at the age of 83. He left his indelible mark on the spirit of Yerushalayim, which continues to fight for the purity of the city as dictated by its legendary defender.

Yehi zichro boruch.

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  1. There are a couple of factual errors in this bio. First of all, R’ Yosef Chaim never met with the Divrei Chaim. According to the book Ha’ish Al Hachoma, written by his great grandson, the one time in his life that R’ Yosef Chaim saw the Divrei Chaim was when he was passing through a town not far from him, and R’ Yosef Chaim was able to get a glimpse through a window.
    Additionally R’ Shmuel Salant didn’t ask R’ Yosef Chaim to become the Rov of Yerushalayim. What he did say was that the person most appropriate for the position is R’ Yosef Chaim but that the kehilla will never take him because he was Hungarian and they were mostly Litvish. R’ Yosef Chaim was never formally the Rov Of Yerushalayim.