Rabbi Shimon Sofer • “The Author of Michtav Sofer”
There are some Jewish families that have become a dwelling place for the Torah, families amongst whom the Torah continually abides.
One such case is the Sofer family, a dynasty of scholars that goes back to Rabbeinu Moshe Sofer (author of Chatam Sofer), and which continues to our day. Rabbi Shimon Sofer was one of these marvelous links.
Born to Rabbi Moshe Sofer on Tevet 13, 5581 (1820), Rabbi Shimon Sofer inherited his father’s fiery zeal in the fight against the Reformists and various other assimilationists. Rabbi Shimon was in fact a fighter during his entire life. When he saw that danger threatened Torah Judaism and the traditions of Galicia because of German Reformers, he became the leader of the Machzikei Hadat (“Defenders of the Faith”) society and raised the standard of the motto, “For indeed those who hate You, O L-RD, I hate them, and I quarrel with those who rise up against You!” (Psalms 139:21).
However from his noble grandfather, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, he inherited humility, the depth of his modesty being equal to the magnitude of his intelligence. When the famous community of Nickelsburg offered him the position as its Rav, he refused by saying: “My heart trembles, for I have thoroughly examined myself and not found anything to give my soul the audacity to ascend to such a high position and take the place of the greatest Torah scholars in such a large, lovely, and pleasant community as the holy city of Nickelsburg” (see Iggerot Sofrim).
He studied Torah with his father until he reached a very advanced level. All the greatest scholars of his generation, among them being famous Rebbes, respected him enormously and requested his opinion on various community issues. He was the Rav of Mattersdorf for 17 years, and in 5621 (1861) he became the Rav of the great city of Krakow.
Traditionally, Krakow had exceptional Rabbis such as the Rema, the Bach, and the Tosaphot Yom Tom. For several years, Rabbi Shimon rejected the offers of the city’s residents. People even sent him money for travel expenses, and he was given a government certificate nominating him as the Rav of Krakow, but he returned everything. However when people wrote to him saying that the town was in danger, for if he refused to become their Rav they would bring in a Reform Rabbi, he immediately said that he would take this responsibility upon himself.
Since he was impressive looking and perfectly fluent in the language of the land, he was chosen as a member of the Austrian parliament. His appearance in parliament was an honor for all Jewry.
In Krakow, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria met Rabbi Shimon. In one of his letters to his sons, he described the emperor’s visit to the city as follows: “I had the merit of welcoming him yesterday, before which time we went to meet him and stood in line under a magnificent canopy with Torah scrolls contained in holy silver and gold cases. And as for our equitable monarch, when he approached us he stood up in his carriage and bowed before the sacred scrolls, his face pleasant and welcoming” (Iggerot Sofrim p.80).
Various legends abound concerning Rabbi Shimon’s encounter with the emperor:
During the emperor’s visit to Krakow, when the Jews arrived in synagogue to welcome him, they found that his portrait was missing. This portrait had always hung on the synagogue’s wall, and so its disappearance was certainly the work of a secret, belligerent hand. When the leaders of the community became aware of this, there was no time to bring another portrait, and when the emperor arrived he looked all around and saw that there was portrait of him there. He then asked Rabbi Shimon, the Rav of the city, why his portrait was not in Synagogue.
“Your Majesty,” Rabbi Shimon replied, “we the Children of Israel have a commandment called Tefillin, objects that serve as a sign for us. We must put them on every day, attaching them on our arm and head as a sign, and paying close attention to them. However on the Sabbath day, we are not obligated to put on Tefillin, and not only are we not obligated to put them on, but we are forbidden to even touch them. This is because the Sabbath itself is a sign between Israel and its Father in Heaven. We therefore do not need other signs. The same applies here, your Majesty: When you are not with us, we need a portrait of you to help us recall your likeness, yet when we have the opportunity to benefit from the radiance of your countenance, it is forbidden to look at your portrait, which is but a pale imitation of your Majesty.”
Even though he was perfectly fluent in the language of the country, Rabbi Shimon was absolutely against Rabbis using it during their public discourses. Now there was a certain Rabbi who was a great Torah scholar and G-d fearing man, yet he would habitually speak in German. When Rabbi Shimon was asked whether this man should be accepted as the Rav of a certain community, he replied as follows: “If those who object to him want neither him nor anyone like him, may blessings come down upon their heads, for in reality every Rav like him should be viewed with suspicion, and only one in a thousand like him will be perfect in their fear of Heaven” (Iggerot Sofrim p.95).
Despite his inflamed fervor, he loved harmony and detested conflict. He wrote the following in one of his letters: “As for that which concerns disunity – the separation of the Chassidim from the community – I am outside of this debate, for the unity of Israel is good and pleasant, and the unity of the people testifies to that of the Holy One, blessed be He: Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One.”
His love for Eretz Israel was powerful and profound, and throughout his entire life he yearned to travel to the Holy Land. However the magnitude of his responsibilities for the Jewish communities in the Diaspora did not permit him to realize his dream.
In one of his letters to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Zalman Schpitzer, he wrote, “I will tell you the truth, my dear brother. My wife and I greatly hope that G-d will help us to honor His Name and contemplate His presence on the holy mountain of Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt, speedily in our days.”
On the morning of his death, Adar 17, 5643 (1883) he sent for his son-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Akiva Kornitzer, and said to him, “Understand, my son, that for many years my eyes and heart have been constantly turned toward the Holy Land. However, for fear that I be accused for neglecting the tasks that I was responsible for, I never said anything. And now, the time has come to visit the Holy Land.” With these words, his pure soul departed for life of the World to Come.
The newspaper HaMaggid wrote the following about Rabbi Shimon Sofer: “He was the first to address the wealthy and encourage them to establish a community to settle in Eretz Israel. This community was called Rosh Pinah, and it was the first ‘Lovers of Zion’ group established in Krakow.”
Rabbi Shimon left behind five sons, men who were great Talmidei Chachamim, and his position as the Rav of Krakow was taken over by his son-in-law, Rabbi Akiva Kornitzer.