The Tisch: The Unique Case of Erlau

Posted by Levi Cooper on November 5, 2010
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, History

It would appear that Rabbi Yohanan Sofer is recognized today as a hassidic master, even though his community retains idiosyncratic features of its non-hassidic heritage.

Most hassidic dynasties trace their roots back to 19th century Europe, some to the 18th century. There are, however, some dynasties that developed as late as the 20th century. Perhaps the latest addition to the pantheon of hassidic courts is Erlau.

The man who presides over the Erlau court is Rabbi Yohanan Sofer (b. 1923), one of the direct descendants of Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839). Rabbi Moses Sofer, more commonly known by the title of his works Hatam Sofer, was one of the leaders and fashioners of Orthodox Jewry in 19th-century Central Europe and is remembered for his battles against changes in Jewish practice.

The Hatam Sofer was succeeded in the Pressburg (now Bratislava) rabbinate by his son Rabbi Samuel Benjamin Sofer (1815-1871), author of Responsa Ketav Sofer. One of the Ketav Sofer’s 10 children, Rabbi Simon Sofer (the second, 1850-Auschwitz 1944) served as the rabbi of the Hungarian city Erlau (now Eger) from 1881. His responsa are entitled Hitorerut Teshuva. As Rabbi Shimon Sofer aged, one his sons, Rabbi Moses Sofer (the second, 1885-Auschwitz 1944) took over some of the rabbinic duties of the town. The nonagenarian Rabbi Sofer was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was murdered together with his family and community.

None of the Sofer rabbis over successive generations were identified with the hassidic movement.

One of the Erlau Sofer grandchildren to survive – Rabbi Yohanan Sofer – began to resurrect the Sofer legacy in postwar Hungary, first in Budapest and later in Eger. Only in 1950 did he, together with a group of students, move to Jerusalem. At first they joined other scions of the Sofer family at the Pressburg Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but in 1953 Rabbi Yohanan and his students purchased rooms of the former Syrian consulate in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem where they reestablished the Erlau Yeshiva.

It was at around this time that Rabbi Yohanan began to adopt hassidic customs, many foreign to the Sofer legacy: Rabbi Yohanan is said to go to the mikve each morning before prayers, he leads his disciples in the hassidic style tisch and male members of the community wear the shtreimel – the short, wide, circular felt head wear favoured by hassidim. Politically Erlau, identifies with other small hassidic groups as part of the Shlomei Emunim faction of the Agudat Yisrael party in the Knesset.

Yet hassidic practice has not been adopted wholesale. For instance, Erlau Hassidim do not wear the gartel, the simple black belt worn by hassidim during prayer and at other times.

Rabbi Yohanan’s Sofer heritage is hardly an embarrassment; his loyalty to his roots is demonstrated by the printing press he heads which is named after his illustrious great-great-grandfather and seeks to publish works from the rabbis of successive Sofer generations.

Erlau institutions are named after Sofer predecessors: Erlau primary schools carry the title of Rabbi Yohanan’s great-grandfather, the yeshiva is named after his grandfather and Erlau synagogues around the world bear the title of his father.

Erlau, it would appear, retains a dual heritage, a situation that is exemplified by their approach to the prayer rite: On one hand, in the rebbe’s court they continue to use the Ashkenazi prayer rite rather than adopting the rite with strong kabbalistic influences used by other hassidim. There is one notable exception: On Friday nights they add the passage from the Zohar entitled kegavna, a staple of the accepted hassidic prayer rite. Moreover, Erlau communities elsewhere have adopted the hassidic prayer rite in toto.

So is Erlau a hassidic dynasty or not? Its hassidic alignment is so new that, as yet, it would be inaccurate to call it a dynasty. Hassidic customs abound among the leader and his disciples. It would appear that Rabbi Yohanan Sofer is recognized today as a hassidic master, even though his community retains idiosyncratic features of its non-hassidic heritage. Certainly a unique case.

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