The Satmar Rov, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, On His 33rd Yahrtzeit

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satmar-rebbe[Video below.] Remembrances of a talmid, as told to Rabbi Nisson Wolpin

The Satmar Rav, a direct descendant of both the famed Yismach Moshe and the Chavas Daas, was recognized as a young man for his unusual lomdus, hasmadah and tzidkus – Torah scholarship, diligence and piety – assuming his first rabbinical position as Rav of Muzheyer at the age of seventeen. By the outbreak of World War 11, he was Rav of the thriving community of Satmar and had emerged as one of the leading figures in Hungarian Jewry. He distinguished himself with his heroic adherence to Torah under the most brutal conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. After a brief stay in Eretz Yisrael, the Rebbe came to America in 1946 and settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

It was in Williamsburg that the Rebbe painstakingly helped thousands of fellow survivors reconstruct their lives, at the same time reconstructing a thriving Chassidic community – taking advantage of all technological advances of contemporary America, while shunning its values and the more apparent aspects of its life-style. As a result, at the time of his passing, the Rebbe presided over a tight-knit, highly disciplined community numbering in the thousands, with major settlements in Williamsburg and elsewhere, including their flourishing Kiryas Yoel in New York’s Monroe Township, Monsey, Montreal, and of course, Jerusalem, where he was Rav of the Eida Hachreidis.

Indeed, the Satmar communities are all distinguished by a kehillah system that include complete control of shul, kashrus, education, and in many cases, social welfare. Thus, the Brooklyn kehillah embraces an educational system of 5,000 students embodying a complete girl’s school and yeshivos spanning nursery through Kolel, as well as an extremely effective tzeddakah-medical-welfare system and wide-reaching Bikur Cholim network, directed by the Satmar Rebbetzin. This, in a smaller format, is duplicated in the rolling expanses of Kiryas Yoel – the Satmar sponsored suburban settlement.

The Rebbe was renowned for his extremely strong stand against Zionism, even refusing to accept the existence of the State of Israel – differing markedly with Torah authorities of Agudath Israel in this. For that matter, he opposed the very concept of an organized coalition-structured Orthodoxy as personified by Agudath Israel. Nonetheless, he was respected – even revered – in other circles for his vast scholarship, tzidkus, personal humility, astute wisdom, and unwavering tenacity.

The 100,000 people that crowded the streets of Monroe to bid farewell to the Satmar Rav included followers and admirers, Chassidim and Misnagdim, Europeans and Americans, paying homage to one of the greatest of contemporary Jewish leaders, who had taught and led his people as a Rav for seventy-five years … He will be missed – not only by those who followed his particular ideology, but by Orthodox Jews of contrasting viewpoint as well who saw in him a tower of principled leadership.

Of the hushed tens of thousands that came to pay their last respects to the Satmar Rav at his funeral, a large number were members of other communities – various Chassidic groups, yeshiva circles, and out-and-out Misnagdim. They came out of deference to a giant of vast scholarship, who had symbolized a rare level of personal devotion to G-d as well as a demanding, inspiring leadership of a type that has largely disappeared from the world scene. As Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin – Gur Arye) had said regarding the Satmar Rav on an earlier occasion:

Noach suffered a maimed leg as punishment for the one time that he was late with the lion’s meal in the Ark. It would seem that Noach should have been forgiven this one tardiness. But a lion is king of the beasts, and is worthy of service in a manner that is in keeping with its royal position, without any exceptions – especially this particular lion, which was the last of its kind … The same, said the Rosh Yeshiva, may be said of the Satmar Rav. “I’m here to honor him because he’s the last of the lions.”

A great many of those present at his funeral were paying tribute to “the last lion” – the last leader of his kind in our midst.

The Purity of Another Era

They had heard of the Sigheter Rav’s “wonder sons” who were only little children, ninety long years ago. It was said that “Yoilish,” the younger child, refrained from unnecessarily touching covered parts of his body, so he could always be prepared to study Torah. A visiting Rabbi asked the Sigheter Rav if it were so. “Come,” said the Rav, leading the visitor to the bedroom where his three-year-old Yoel was fast asleep. He lifted his tzitzis-fringes over the child’s head and tickled his ear. The sleeping boy slipped his sleeve over his fingers and raised his covered hand to scratch his itchy head.

From the time of his Bar Mitzvah until the outbreak of World War I1 – a period of forty years – Reb Yoel never slept on a bed, except for Shabbosos – studying Torah, on his feet, by day and by night … In the internment camp in Bergen-Belsen, not only did he eat nothing that might have been un-kosher, subsisting mostly on potatoes, but he fasted as often as four times a week.

He continued this procedure until his last days; and even when he did eat, his first meal usually was a cup of coffee at 3 or 4 in the afternoon … “Do I want to eat now? A Jew doesn’t eat because he wants to. He eats because he must.”

While he encouraged his followers to work and earn well, spend on themselves as necessary and give charity lavishly, he avoided spending on himself. Any time he was presented with a new garment, his first reaction was: “Who needs it?”

The Rebbe was fastidious about his personal cleanliness, and would not tolerate a hint of uncleanliness. In part, this was to be fit for prayer and Torah study. In fact, he thought nothing of changing clothes several times during the day if he found them unclean. Even in Bergen-Belsen, he had bartered food for tissues …

Unknown to many, he was also meticulous about precision in time and manner of performance of mitzvos. Only his Shacharis was invariably late because of his personal preparations … On occasion, he could not begin his Pesach Seder until after 11 o’clock because of ill health. This did not deter him from eating the afikomen before midnight, as is required by halachah, according to many … He also consulted an authority present at his Pesach Seder regarding the precise size of his matzos and marror, as is required by halacha for the mitzvos …

He took pains to shield his knowledge of Kabbalah from the curious. The Rebbe was always surrounded by people – indeed, he enjoyed company; but he was sensitive to prying eyes. He made light of references to mofsim (miracles) or kabbalistic involvement in our times. Yet his conduct at meals – the ways he picked at his food, and his deep concentration in tefillah, bespoke hidden motives, meaning-laden cryptic gestures.

While he made himself available to people without hesitation, and seemed to enjoy conversing with all his visitors, the Rebbe had a distinctly regal bearing. When walking down Bedford Avenue from his home to the bais hamidrash, the sidewalk would clear well in advance of his coming. Not that there was anything forbidding about his appearance. But, until his very last years, a vitality seemed to shine through his smooth, translucent face that bespoke a purity that defied the passage of time, and inspired others to move back in awe.

The Vast Sea of His Knowledge

It seemed as though he never had to prepare for a lecture, drashah, or shiur. In Europe the custom had been for someone to open a Midrash Rabba at Shalosh Seudos, and read three passages at random – giving the Rebbe material for his dissertation. He would then expound at length, quoting passages from the Midrash verbatim … In America, he would enter the yeshiva’s bais hamidrash, ask where the bachurim were up to in their studies, open the Gemara and begin a long, involved lecture without further notice.

Rabbi Yaakov Breish of Zurich had spent years on the section of his sefer Chelkas Yaakov that deals with the complicated laws of ribbis (usury). When visiting the United States, he visited the Satmar Rav and spent several hours discussing in detail several difficult topics in his sefer. He later expressed wonder at how thorough the Rebbe’s mastery of this topic had been, even though his visit had been unannounced, giving the Rebbe no time for preparation.

The Rebbe would write his Torah commentaries at two or three o’clock in the morning, relishing every minute. He once remarked, “I could see myself doing this the rest of my life, but I have a directive from my father that one must be prepared to give away his own Torah, if necessary, to help a fellow Jew.”

Notwithstanding his round-the-clock involvement in chessed, his treasure house of Torah knowledge was vast. Perhaps Klal Yisrael was deprived of the greater riches that would have been theirs had he been allowed the luxury of extending the full measure of the hasmadah of his youth into his later years, and not suffered the distraction of being father to his community. But then, Klal Yisroel would not have had a Satmar Rav, and we would have been infinitely poorer for that loss.

Father to His Community

A large number of those at his funeral had come as children mourning a very personal loss, many of them ripping their garments in kriyah for the loss of a father who had cared for their every need, both spiritual and material. It is extremely difficult to comprehend how so many thousands could experience such an intense relationship with one man. And yet, how else can one explain the phenomenal growth of the Satmar community from several scores of families in the late 40’s to so many thousands of followers today – especially when the external trappings of the group’s lifestyle is in direct conflict with modern Western culture? To be sure, the explanation for this growth lies in part in the large families generally prevalent in the Torah community. But it also must be attributed to the exceedingly low defection rate among Satmar Chassidim – a phenomenon in which the Rebbe played a pivotal role.

Shortly after he had arrived in America, a young Chassid was discussing the naming of his newly born son with the Satmar Rav, in the presence of another rabbi. “My grandfather was a very good Jew,” he said.

“His name would be a fine choice for your son,” commented the Rebbe.

“But several of m y nephews and cousins already carry his name. On the other hand, my father-in-law has no one named after him.”

“That should certainly be taken into consideration.”

“However …”

And so it continued. After the young father left, the other visitor asked the Rebbe why he permitted himself to become so involved with trivia.

“In the old country, I was a father at home, and could be a Rebbe in the city. But here,” the Rebbe sighed, “this is simply not suitable. I have to be a father to my community, and a Rebbe at home.”

As visitors streamed into his room, the Rebbe asked questions and listened carefully, seemed to bend his shoulder to carry the load of others, and was mispallel (prayed) for their needs.

His manner of closely examining a kvittel, looking for clues – and, amazingly, “discovering” errors in the writing of the name of a total stranger (“You write ‘Binyamin ben Leah’ – isn’t there more to the mother’s name? – You say ‘ben Leah Esther’? You should have written it so!”) – and the encouraging word he invariably offered, comforting the petitioner… Stories are legion about occasions when – after hearing the details of a person’s problems – the Rebbe swept his table clean of the day’s accumulation of pidyon gelt (monies for charity, given to the Rebbe by people petitioning for his help and prayers) to give to a needy visitor . . . Nor did he limit his compassion and sharing of joys and sorrows to his own immediate group:

The Latin American lady not at all dressed in Satmar tradition, who needed money for her son’s hospitalization and left with the full amount… The man who wept bitterly for all his suffering, and walked out with the entire day’s proceeds. Then the Rebbe was informed that the man was a fraud. “Baruch Hashem!” exclaimed the Rebbe, “I’m so relieved that he’s not in such terrible straits!”… The editor of an Israeli journal that had slandered – even ridiculed – the Rebbe, was in his room, sobbing for his daughter’s terrible personal plight – she was engaged to be married but lacked sufficient funds to purchase an apartment. After the Rebbe had given him a large sum of money, someone whispered into his ear, “Don’t you know who that was?” “Of course I do,” replied the Rebbe, and then – after a moment’s hesitation – called back the editor and gave him even more …

An alumnus of a Lithuanian-type yeshiva in Israel sat near the Rebbe at his Pesach Seder. The Rebbe was amused at his guest’s pompous measuring of the precise portion of food and drinks required for the rituals (even though the Rebbe himself was no less fastidious). As the guest prepared his matzos, the Rebbe asked him, “Are you sure it’s the right shiyur (required amount)?” Similarly, after he ate the marror, and later when he eyed his afikomen before consuming it, the Rebbe smilingly asked, “Is it the shiyur?”

Finally, the fellow put down his matzah and said, “Rebbe I’m not sure. But isn’t it the shiyur of tcheppen (teasing)?”

The Rebbe was deeply disturbed that he had actually offended the man with remarks that he had only meant as a friendly exchange. He begged his forgiveness again and again, as was his habit when he felt he had mistreated someone. Finally he asked him, “Please see me right after Yom Tov.”

When the man reported to the Rebbe, he asked, “Why are you here? Why did you come to America?”

“I’m here because I must raise five to six thousand dollars to marry off my daughter.”

“I’ll get the money for you. And please – any children that you will be marrying off in the future – come here and I’ll take care of your financial needs.”

The Satmar Rav was not satisfied until he had financed the weddings of the man’s four daughters.

Builder of a Community

While the Rebbe’s personal warm concern for each individual was surely a key factor in the unusually low drop-out rate among his kehillah’s members, there are additional factors in his leadership that also account for this phenomenon.

When he settled in Williamsburg shortly after arriving in the United States, he found a handful of his followers in a bais hamidrash all day, saying Tehillim, learning Chok – and spending their time in “the Rebbe’s Court”. He summoned them to him and insisted that they find jobs to support their families. “If I had the strength (he was in his sixties at the time) I’d also go to work.” … He felt that he could not be oblivious to the stress on material well-being that marks American society. Here, especially, one had to be mindful of the dictum: “Poverty can sway a man from loyalty to his Creator.” Moreover, a viable community could only take shape if it is self-supporting on a level comparable to that of the surrounding society. By the same token, he guided his followers to give tzeddakah expansively – not to shy away from a sweeping gesture of generosity. Today, members of the Satmar community are active in all phases of business and commerce, as well as in a wide spectrum of occupations, ranging from grocers to computer programmers. And the community itself supports a host of social services, most notably its bikur-cholim program – administering to the sick, with fleets of cars and vans carrying hundreds of volunteers to hospitals all over New York, throughout the day.

A Klal-Yisrael Curriculum

The Rebbe founded the Yeshiva Yetev Lev and the Bais Rochel School for girls, both adhering to the syllabus of pre-World War II Satmar. The Yeshiva emphasizes a rapid pace of study, familiarity with a broad range of topics, and an eye on practical application, through halachah. The girls’ school follows a strictly prescribed Hebrew curriculum. Yet the Rebbe was keenly aware of the surrounding yeshiva scene. In fact, shortly after his arrival in the States he delivered shiurim in the bais hamidrash of both Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn and the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, in response to invitations from the yeshivos’ respective leaders.

On a visit to Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey, the mashgiach, Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Kaplan, who took great pride in his Kollel, asked the Rebbe why his kehillah does not include one. He replied, “You are raising an elite of gedolei Yisrael. I hope to establish a broad Klal Yisroel. I dare not sacrifice the average students for the sake of the isolated individual of rare promise.”

Nonetheless, the Satmar Rav did recognize the necessity of grooming a leadership of expert talmidei chachamim, and from the modest beginnings of several young men studying privately in his home, he eventually founded a full-fledged kollel, with emphasis on psak halachah.

Before the kollel’s formal opening, it was announced that the Rebbe himself would screen prospective members – but not until after their wedding. The first candidate came in, nervously anticipating a grueling test on Talmud and commentaries … “How many people did you invite to your wedding?” asked the Rebbe. “At how much per couple? … What did your furniture cost? … So much? And you want the community to support you? Forget about it. Kollel is not for you.”

As exacting as he was in choosing kollel members, he was forgiving in dealing with his yeshiva students, never expelling a boy from his schools – for how does one expel someone from the Jewish community?

The Festivals in Satmar

The Satmar sense of community was especially apparent when the Yomim Noraim Season began – first Slichos, with the Rebbe leading with his frail voice, precise in nusach, heart-rending in emotion . . . his pouring forth of soul on Rosh Hashana, and then on Yom Kippur, crowned by his Ne’ilah … Then Hoshana Rabbah, when thousands – literally thousands – would crowd the Satmar bais hamidrash to be with the Rebbe, with hundreds of “outsiders” who joined the mispallelim to watch as the Rebbe sang the Hallel, and waved his lulau, cuing thousands to follow his lead – southward, northward, eastward, up, down, westward – “Hodu – let us praise G-d” – “Anna Hashem – Please G-d, help us, save us!” Waving to and fro, as if the Rebbe were himself waving a thousand lulavim – not lulavim, but waving a thousand souls in praise and supplication … Watching as he led his Chassidim in the Hoshanos, weeping, and pleading with them to strive for personal improvement, for sanctity – urging them in his moving address, to join him in calling to G-d to “Help us lema’ancho – for Your Sake!” … Then Simchas Torah, when the sea of humanity compressed into his bais hamidrash would split, opening a path for the Rebbe, carrying his diminutive Sefer Torah; voices rising and falling in song like breakers on a shore; his tallis draped over his head, shielding his eyes, swaying for a moment, and then running – or dancing – or floating – it’s difficult to say which . . . somehow he seemed to be borne aloft by the swell of voices. How else could he stay on his frail, suffering feet for six hours on end?

And then, after Yom Tov, the triumphant torchlit march accompanying the Rebbe home, closing the season.

One Man Alone

The patriarch Avraham was also known as “Avraham HaIvri,” because he came to Canaan from Eiver LaNohor, the other side of the river. This title has also been explained to refer to his position as one man against the world – “Avraham be’eiver echad – one man alone on his side,” believing in monotheism, while the entire world was on the other side of the issue.

This one trait assumed major significance: When any of Avraham’s contemporaries was asked about his beliefs, he would reply, “Of course, I am an idol-worshiper.” Then, even though he well could have ignored monotheism, since Avraham was its only exponent, and idolatry was the universally accepted belief of millions, he would add: “There is another approach: the monotheism of Avraham. ”

That Avraham could single-handedly invade the consciousness of the entire world and create in their minds the possibility of ”another approach” was most noteworthy. Thus, it was perpetuated in his name – “Avraham Halvri.”

The same may be said about the Satmar Rav. Most of world Jewry had accepted the Zionist dream. And even many among those who had rejected its limited, secular definition of Jewishness were excited by the emergence of the State of Israel, and the miraculous victories in ’48, ’56 and ’67. The Satmar Rav was often alone in consistently condemning the State as the pure embodiment of a secular ideal, a ma’ase Sattan: dismissing victories on the battlefield as an ideological minefield; opposing mass aliyah as a violation of the Three Vows (T.B. Kesubos 11a : Binding Jewry not to force its way into Eretz Yisrael, nor to rebel against the nations, and the nations not to subjugate the Jews excessively.) for settling the country in defiance of world opinion; and participation in the government in any form – even voting in national elections – as strengthening a reprehensible concept by implied recognition. Like some other schools, those of the Eida Hachreidis, which is in the Satmar orbit, do not accept funding from the Israeli government.

Advisors had begged the Rebbe to omit from his writings his directives against going to the Kosel, as being too difficult to accept, sure to result in the alienation of many of his followers. He commented, “I don’t care if I’m left with only one minyan of adherents. I’ll not refrain from expressing my beliefs.”

He was once advised by a close associate, “Don’t let yourself get so upset!” The Rebbe replied, “There are a thousand reasons not to reveal the Emes, If one gets upset, he can forget himself for a moment, and then at least a bit of Emes comes through.”

The mainstream of the Torah leadership did not subscribe to his approach toward dealing with the Israeli government. Even those most strongly opposed to the State’s philosophy accepted its existence and, at worst, felt compelled to deal with it as they would with any government that ruled a land where Jews lived. At times they were deeply upset with his unyielding approach – such as Rabbi Aharon Kotler’s vexation with the Rebbe for “publicly opposing the Chazon Ish, Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, the Belzer Rebbe and the Tchebiner Rav – all of whom held that voting in Israeli national elections was an obligation on every Torah Jew who took the needs of the Yishuv to heart.” Nonetheless, they were always aware of the Satmar position and often measured their stance against the extremes of the Satmar-Neturei Karta ideology. And even the most rabid, anti-religious secularist was aware of the “on the other hand,” represented by this one man’s uncompromising stance.

His ideology is represented by his two seforim VaYoel Moshe and Al Hage’ulah V’al Hatemurah, written with vast scholarship and great care – as well as by his spoken word on numerous occasions.

In spite of the difference between them, a current of admiration flowed between the Satmar Rav and the heads of American Yeshivos. Said Reb Aharon Kotler: “The Satmar Rav and I do not have the same approach – neither in Torah study nor in political matters – but I must say, he is a giant in Torah and a giant in midos.” The Satmar Rav, in turn, spoke at Reb Aharon’s funeral, weeping, quoting Rashi (in Be’haaloscha): “‘The praise of Aharon is that he did not deviate’ – Reb Aharon remained ever faithful to his tradition, never deviating.”

Similarly, Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath and Bais Medrash Elyon, who had headed the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of Agudath Israel, had made it a policy of never responding to criticisms “from the right” because its adherents are G-d-fearing Jews, and there may well be some elements of truth in their approach (Beiyos Hazman pp. 69-71)…. Indeed, Reb Reuvain had often cited a statement by his father-in-law, Rabbi Boruch Ber Lebowitz, a leading Rosh Yeshiva in pre World-War II Europe: “The Satmar Rav was the person to contact whenever the Polish and Lithuanian leadership had need to communicate with Hungarian Jewry.” When the Satmar Rav visited Reb Reuvain when he was ill from the stroke that had partially paralyzed him, the Rebbe wished the Rosh Yeshiva: “A refuah sheleimah – a complete recovery, so we can battle each other once again.” … Several years later, when he returned home from Reb Reuvain’s funeral, the Rebbe seemed unusally depressed. To his Rebbetzin’s question as to why he was so troubled, he replied, “The world has lost an lsh Ha’emes – a man of rare integrity.”

It was not only in regard to its extreme anti-Zionism that the Satmar Rav had molded his community as “a group apart,” in the manner of Avraham Halvri. He also guided it to being distinguished in its total lack of compromise in mode of dress – not yielding to American pressures, neither in style nor in lack of modesty. If anything, the newer generations have reinforced their dedication to the standards of “Jewishness in dress” that had prevailed in Satmar of old making it much easier, one might add, for the American yeshiva community to adhere to its own standards of propriety without developing a sense of being at the outer edge of society.

Thus, the Satmar Rav’s relentless demands for the highest religious standards proved to be an important contribution toward changing the complexion of a significant segment of Orthodox life in America. Witness: Holocaust survivors and their American-born grandchildren – dayanim (rabbinical judges), rabbanim, diamond polishers, computer technicians, and gas-pump attendants among them – who proudly walk the streets of the New World in traditional garb, making the shtreimel an everyweek feature of many communities.

For evidence of the living legacy of the late Satmar Rav, we tend to look at the self-contained communities of his followers that crowd this or that old-world corner of various urban centers; or that are found in unlikely suburban locations, such as New York’s Monroe township or Rockland County. But, in many respects, his influence has extended beyond the confines of his immediate following, for those whose compass is set by other stars cannot help but have had their own awareness sharpened by the perspectives of the Satmar Rav.

After all, who can live in the same community as a tzaddik – or even in his time – and not be affected by his presence?

When Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky spoke at the unveiling of the matzeivah (monument) at the gravesite of the Satmar Rav, one week after his passing, he commented on the special gift G-d had bequeathed on our generation through the presence of the Satmar Rav for over nine decades:

“When an era closes, there is always a danger that the succeeding generations will be oblivious to the values and special character of their predecessors. Thus G-d often grants one exemplary member of the preceding era longevity, to permit him to teach the next generation how the old generation lived – by his mere presence. Thus did Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi – who closed the era of the Tannaim by writing the Mishnah – continue to ‘frequent his home’ for decades after his passing; and Rabbi Yochanan, who compiled the Jerusalem Talmud, lived for hundreds of years…; and thus did the Satmar Rav grace our generation with a greatness in scholarship and piety that had been identified with the glory of days gone by.”

{This article originally appeared in The Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.}

Click here for a video of the Satmar Rov.

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