Living Legacy: Rav Ephraim Eliezer Yolles
By: Yehuda Alter
This Shabbos marks the yohrtzeit of Rav Yolles of Philadelphia.
From the age of ten, Ephraim Eliezer was already committing his chidushei Torah to writing. In 1909, he published his first sefer—the first of numerous that he would author in his lifetime. In 1912, an entire manuscript was consumed by a fire, and traumatized by this incident, he decided to pause from writing pilpulim, and instead delved into mastering the entirety of Shulchan Aruch.
In his publication, named Divrei Ephraim Eliezer, he refers to the great Ga’on, Rav Yosef Engel of Krakow, as “Mori v’Rabi”—evidence that he spent time learning under him.
In 1912 he married Binah, the daughter of his uncle Rav Yehuda Tzvi of Sambor. In 1916, the young avreich was asked to serve on the beis din in the town of Strij, where his father, Rav Shalom Yolles was the Rav. He remained there for five years, whereupon he accepted the invitation of the Strij-Sambor community in New York—mostly chassidim of his grandfather, Rav Uri—who asked him to come lead them.
He arrived in New York in advance of Pesach of 1921.
The workload of Rabbanus in New York, with the many queries that came his way, was too consuming for the young Rav, and so he accepted the offer of Rabbi Dov Aryeh Leventhal, the Chief Rabbi of Philadephia (who is seen prominently at the march, and one of the four Rabbis allowed in to meet with the Vice President), to serve as a Rav of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, which he did beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul, 1921.
In the year 1927, an illustrious Polish Ga’on graced the American landscape for a short visit to raise funds for his equally famous yeshivah. Rav Meir Shapiro, zt”l visited many cities in America, and among them the large city of Philadelphia. His achsanya during that stay was at the home of Rav Yalles, whose family went back a long way with Rav Shapiro and with the yeshivah, where numerous family members attended.
In his tehsuvos, Rav Yolles recalls one night when a call came in from the Manischewitz Matzah bakery in Cincinnati, asking whether tap water was acceptable for Mayim Shelanu. The two ge’onim debated all night, and concluded that it was not viable.
During his time in Philadelphia, he forged decades-long friendships with many of the cities’ Rabbanim, and was always seen as an elder, revered Rav in that city, and he was a respected figure in Lubavitch, shown great honor by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
He was also the president of Agudas Harabanim for many years.
His work on behalf of the Philadelphia community began immediately when he arrived there. And he continued this unrelenting until the end of his life. Upon the passing of Rav Levinthal in 1953, Rav Yolles was accepted as the Chief Rabbi of Philadelphia—and was in charge of Kashrus and building mikva’os in the city.
In 1953, he urged the Rabbanim in the city to found a yeshivah, understanding that this was the key to Jewish survival. Each of them contributed one hundred dollars, and they asked Rav Aharon Kotler to send talmidim from Lakewood with which to begin this project.
The group came, headed by Rav Dov Schwartzman and, ybl”ch, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky—who continues to head this empire of Torah that continues to produce thousands of stellar bnei Torah.
Rav Yolles left this world on 25 Cheshvan 1989, leaving behind a treasure of written Torah, and hundreds of descendants who continue to follow in his ways.