Living Legacy: Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, Upon his 90th Yohrtzeit
By: Yehuda Alter
Precisely 90 years have passed since the petirah of Rav Sonnenfeld, the leader of the Old Yishuv in Yerushalayim, who was niftar 19 Adar II, 1932, and on this 90th anniversary his accurate yohrtzeit is observed (since not every year has two Adars).
He was born Chaim Sonnenfeld, in the town of Verbo, near Nitra, in Czekeslovakia, into a prominent family who were ardent talmidim of the Chasam Sofer.
In 1873, he went up to the holy land, where he became close to Rav Yehoshua Leib DIskin, the Rov of the Old Yishuv—and recognizing his unique skills, Rav Diskin drew him in, working closely with him on many initiatives related to the welfare and growth of the Yidden in Eretz Yisroel, including the legendary Diskin Orphanage.
He emerged as a leading figure in the expansion of the yishuv outside the walls of the old city, and was instrumental in the founding of neighborhoods such as Batei Ungarin, Beis Yisroel, and Sha’arei Chessed. This involved purchasing properties from Arabs, and building homes there. Much of this work was accomplished by persuading wealthy Yidden from Europe to invest in this project.
For all of his zealous and fierce battles for the purity of the yishuv, Rav Yosef Chaim was equally sensitive to the feelings and the dignity of everyone, as exhibited from the following story:
In 1914, the Rabbonim of Eretz Yisrael, led by Rav Sonnenfeld, conducted a “tour of teshuvah” throughout the land, in new settlements that were being founded. At the day’s conclusion, they arrived in the city of Jaffa, where they gathered at the home of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. The Rebbetzin had prepared an entire table of tea and refreshments for the esteemed guests.
Rabbi Sonnenfeld's son approached his father and whispered in his ear: "Father, today you are fasting due to a yohtzeit, don’t forget. Rabbi Yosef Chaim heard this, and hurried to take a few small sips from the boiling tea. His surprised son thought his father did not hear well, but his father hinted to him that it was all right… and he explained: The Rebbetzin toiled greatly to prepare for us, and if I would not take part, this would possibly cause her pain… so I gulped down the extremely hot liquid, in a way that I would not taste it.”
Rav Sonnenfeld’s love for Eretz Yisroel was unbridled; he left the land only once, to meet the king of Jordan. He was involved with herculean gemilus chessed and tzeddaka activities which greatly aided the Yidden of Yerushalayim.
He was known for his exceptional wisdom and brilliance, knowing how to navigate extremely tense situations facing the Yidden in the community. The rules for the chevra kaddisha of the Anskenazic kehilah, which he introduced, are kept to this day.
Everyone found their way to his door—from the most learned men of Yerushalayim to the most downtrodden. His teshuvos are comprised in Toras Chaim and Shalmas Chaim.
He was niftar in Yerushalayim on 19 Adar II of the year 1932, exactly 90 years ago. His levaya drew enormous crowds from all the communities in the holy land, and they escorted him to his resting place on Har Hazeisim. A number of voluminous biographies have been written in the years since his passing, commemorating one of the most consequential figures in Yerushalayim of the last century.