Living Legacy: Rav Chaim Yehuda Leib Aurbach
By: Yehuda Alter
One of old Yerushalayim’s most prominent figures, founder of the famed Yeshiva Sha’ar Hashomayim for the study of kabbalah, Rav Chaim Yehuda Leib is perhaps best known for the illustrious sons that he left this world. His yohrtzeit falls on the 28th of Elul.
He was born in the year 1883 to his father, Rav Avrohom Dov Aurbach, the Chernovitzer-Chmielniker Rebbe. His father came from illustrious Chassidic stock. He was a sixth-generation descendant of the Toldos Yaakov Yosef of Polno’oh, who was a prize talmid of the ba’al shem tov, and he was a grandson of the Divrei Chaimi of Sanz.
He married Tzivia, the daughter of Rav Shlomo Zalman Porush, patriarch of the illustrious Porush family, and founder of the Shaarei Chessed neighborhood.
One night in 1906, he dreamed that the Arizal came to him and lamented that, while the Sephardic Jews were studying his Torah, there was no yeshiva for the study of kabbalah for Ashkenazi Jews. This led to the founding of Yeshiva Sha’ar Hashomayim, in existence to this day.
In 1916, due to his prominence in the city, he was appointed an assistant-consul to Iran. He used this position to aid his fellow Jews, granting them citizenship, thus protecting them from persecution by the Turks. When the Iranians caught wind of his schemes, they sentenced him to death in absentia. At the last moment, he found out about the plot, and went into hiding, where he sat and learned with a student for a few months, until the fury blew over.
In 1931, Rav Chaim Yehuda Leib came to America to fundraise for Sha’ar Hashomayim. The visit is described by historians Dovi Safier and Yehuda Geberer in a Mishpacha “on the record” column: “On March 11, he arrived in New York harbor on a Greek steamer. Immediately he was whisked away to city hall in a waiting car, where, in front of an adoring crowd of 1,000, he was presented with a symbolic key to the city.”
Rav Aurbach spent the next two years traveling throughout America. Wherever there was a Jewish outpost, he made his way there, and newspaper accounts tell the story of the “dean of kabbalah” who delivered many addressed on kabbalistic themes. He spoke about the issues of the day—such as prohibition and the Great Depression—and exhorted his brethren to return to Jewish observance.
He returned to Eretz Yisroel with not much in the way of money raised, but having blazed a trail of awakening in faraway America.
Rav Aurbach continued to stand at the helm of his yeshiva, and conduct his avodas Hashem, until his passing in 1954.
His legacy was carried on by his illustrious sons, some of whom were involved with Yeshiva Sha’ar Hashomayim, and some of whom were Roshei Yeshiva and poskim who illuminated the generations with their Torah—serving as a bridge and a legacy to their great father and his ancestors.