Those that knew the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, loved him. After the Nazi beasts yimach shmam almost completely destroyed European Jewry, the Rebbe faced one of the most enormous challenges a spiritual leader could face. And he succeeded. The Satmar Rebbe rebuilt a broken nation, one person at a time.
He took broken men. He taught them. He inspired them.
Since his passing in 1979, two generations have passed. Those that knew him are getting older. Many of his Bnai Bayis are no longer with us, r”l. How then can we gain insight into this great Tzaddik and builder of our nation?
In this tribute, it is suggested that we can see a tiny vignette of the Satmar Rebbe from an as yet un-mined and untapped source. The source is one whose existence is not so well known – his oeuvre of responsa.
The two volumes of the Satmar Rebbe’s responsa were compiled by Rabbi Ephraim Yoseph Dov Ashkenazi and were printed twice. The first edition was printed in 1982, the second sixteen years later in 1998. Both were printed at the Printing House of Rabbi Sender Deutsch in Brooklyn. But let us get back to the content of his writings, and the insights.
It is an answer to someone who is bitter because of his own sins. He first tells him how to lift himself out of the abyss but he also tells him how not to give up. What follows is an exact translation.
“For one that does not believe that the Holy One forgives those who have angered him, even if they have angered him without limit, recites a bracha l’vatalah every day, Chas v’shalom. “Chanun HaMarbeh lisloach” Gracious is He who forgives exceptionally. For the Creator forgives without limit. Our sages have already discussed the greatness of a Baal Teshuvah – for where they stand even the greatest of people do not stand.”
They are a few simple words. But they inspire and build.
It is well known that the Satmar Rebbe built an extraordinary community. He built a community that gave the world Hatzolah, outstanding Bikkur Cholim, Kimpatoriums and much much more.
However, all of these accomplishments and his genuine ahavas-Yisroel-imbued interactions with individuals and their vivid personal recollections, tend to obscure another aspect of this extraordinary man.
They obscure the fact that the Satmar Rebbe zt”l was a giant of a Talmid Chochom with deep insight and chiddushim in every corner and facet of Torah. There are thirty three Teshuvos in the Orech Chaim section of his responsa. We will review them all, and a few others in the other sections as well:
Responsa Divrei Yoel – Orech Chaim
The Orech Chaim section begins with the heart rending question (OC #1) of, “May saliva be used for the ritual washing of hands in the morning?” It is a holocaust era question that speaks volumes not only of Jewish deprivation and suffering, but of Jewish dedication, and idealism in their all-encompassing commitment to fulfill Halacha. His response to Rav Chaim Elazar of Munkatch, of course, was that it may not be used, the halachic status of saliva being something unclean, in and of, itself.
In a letter to Rav Yitzchok Isaac Lieberman of Chicago, dated Tuesday, January 1st, 1952 (Parshas VaYigash 5712) the Rebbe advised left handed people to try to fulfill the opinion of the Arizal that they should also wear their Tefillin on the left hand, but to do so at home and without a Bracha (OC responsa #2).
The Rebbe also dealt with (OC #3) the halachos of a weakened right arm that got better and the person still showed a preference to use his left hand– did the person now become a left-handed person in terms of Tefillin? His response to Rav Simcha Bunim Sofer of Yerushalayim on Tuesday, March 22, 1955 (Parshas VaYikra 5715), differentiated between whether he now uses his left hand because he became used to it (which would be a halachic debate) or because his original right hand is weaker (in which case he has become a de facto lefty).
Newly Discovered Seforim
He also addressed (OC #4) the halachic status of the newly unearthed commentary of the Meiri which was found in an Italian monastery in 1948 in a letter to Rav Yoseph Scheinberger of Yerushalayim. He cites the responsa of the Chsam Sopher (Vol. VI CM #61) that one should not learn any sefer that does not contain haskamos – approbations of the greatest of the leading Rabbis, and not just any approbations. He discusses how his grandfather, the Yetiv Laiv gave a haskama to a great Talmid Chochom, only to discover to his chagrin that the work contained heresy. He withdrew the haskama.
[YH This position was the same one taken by the Chazon Ish, although neither referred to the other in their responses to the new Meiri.]
In Responsa #5, written to his student Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kahn of Yerushalayim, he deals with a number of issues, including that his grandfather, the Yetiv Lev’s custom in Tefillin regarding Stumos and Psuchos (the indents) was like the opinion of the TaZ (OC 32:26) and not like the Rambam. He found this out after he inherited the Tefillin of his grandfather and they were opened. He also deals with when the War of Gog and Magog will take place, before Mashiach arrives or after. He brought many proofs that it will be after and the arrival of Eliyahu may be before but it is unclear.
The Satmar Rebbe also addresses the fact that he was uncomfortable taking payments from the Germans – but never told others not to do so, because he was not entirely clear on the issue. He discusses the nusach of the Shabbos zemer “L’saadah b’hada” or “b’hadei” – concluding that on Friday night B’hada should be said while on Shabbos day it should be b’hadei.
In Responsa #6 to Rabbi Akiva Blau of Kehilas Krasnow, the Satmar Rebbe discusses whether an old pair of beloved Tefillin can be restored by writing over the letters or is it a problem of shelo k’sidran – that the Parshios would not have been written in consecutive order. It is a long analysis and he concludes that it may only be done if the Parshios were at least minimally kosher.
A Sefer Torah that Fell r”l
In Responsa #7 to Rav Shlomo Boruch Prager, the Satmar Rebbe deals with a case of a Sefer Torah that fell, but it is unclear whether any part of it had touched the ground or whether it was saved adequately during the fall. He concludes, after a long analysis that a doubt regarding a sin is often worse than a sin itself and advises that the Kehillah adopt certain measures.
Shuls, Torah Readings, & Mechitzos
In Responsa #8 written to Rav Michoel Eliezer Lipman Perslager, a student of the Avnei Nezer, he deals with an elderly person who can no longer walk to a distant shul and the only shul within walking distance is one where the majority of its minyan are Shabbos violators. The Satmar Rebbe recommends that he daven at home.
In Responsa #9 to Rav Shalom Yechezkel Shraga Hash, the Satmar Rebbe deals with the issue of the Torah readings during the beginning of Nissan and whether it is proper to initiate the reading of the Nesiim prior to Mussaf. He concludes that it should not be done in this manner.
In Responsa #10, to Rav Chananya Yomtov Deutsch the former Av Beis Din of the town of Helmitz, the Satmar Rebbe discusses the status of low Mechitzos even among the Orthodox in America. He discusses his amazement at Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l’s position that the purpose of a Mechitzah is to prevent mixing and not to prevent Histaklus – glancing. He cites a number of proofs that clearly state that the purpose is to prevent Histaklus.
In Responsa #11, also to Rav Deutsch, he discusses a halachic argument he had with Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the Telze Rosh Yeshiva zt”l concerning the Satmar Rav’s opinion that adding onto Binyan on Shabbos is a biblical prohibition regarding Mechitzos. He also rules that television is certainly to be considered Avodah Zarah and Gilui Arayos, non-kosher and apikorsus.
Wine and Brachos
In Responsa #12 the Satmar Rebbe discusses with Rav Yonasan Shteif zt”l a distinction between making wine from small raisins versus larger raisins. He questions whether it is permissible with the smaller raisins on account of the fact that the blessing may not be HaGafen according to a number of Achronim.
In Responsa #13 to Rav Levi Yitzchok Gavo, the Av Beis Din of Arugas HaBosem in Brooklyn, he discusses in a very long responsa that the Borei Nefashos can serve as a general Bracha Achronah when there are some other doubts [YH: It is interesting to note that Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l held to a similar position and was attacked for it in the Me’aneh l’Igros].
In Responsa #14 he discusses with the Rav in Montevideo, Uruguay, Rav Asher Shmuel Katz, a forthcoming Chanukas HaBayis of a shul, and rules that regarding whether to recite a Shehecheyanu or a Boruch HaTov v’hamaitiv that they should take a new fruit and recite the Shehecheyanu on that, having the building in mind. [YH: Rav Chaim Kanievsky advises the same in his sefer on Hilchos HaMikdash]
In Responsa #15 to Rav Moshe Dovid Teitelbaum, he deals with whether there is a Mitzvah of honoring Shabbos or any other Mitzvah in placing a date upon a letter. The Satmar Rav explores the issue extensively and concludes that there is not even a hint of such a Mitzvah.
In Responsa #16 to Rav Moshe Yisroel Feldman, he discusses whether there is an issue of Yaharog ve’al yaavor – giving up one’s life when there is a governmental decree that the stores must be open on the Shabbos. He ruled that it is only applicable when they are doing it for the purpose of religion but when not on account of an anti-religious decree (but an economic one) it is not Yaharog ve’al yaavor.
In Responsa #17 the Rebbe discusses his position that a lock and key cannot address the issues of Shehiya – leaving non-fully cooked food on an uncovered flame before Shabbos begins. [YH: The Satmar Rebbe’s position here disagrees with that of Rav Moshe Feinstein (IM OC IV #74 Bishul 22,23,35) and that of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach SSK 1:71 and Rav Vosner in Shaivet HaLevi 1:91 “U’b’Emes. It agrees with the Chazon Ish cited by Rav Moshe Shternbuch in Teshuvos V’Hanhagos OC I #207:8 and the position of Rav Elyashiv cited in Meor HaShabbos IV p. 149]
In Responsa #18 the Satmar Rebbe re-establishes his position that the Halacha regarding when Shabbos ends and begins is like the majority of the Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch that held of the two Shkiyas theory (like Rabbeinu Tam). Nonetheless, he writes that it is worthy to be concerned for the view of the Gaonim that sunset is the time.
In Responsa #19 the Satmar Rebbe deals with whether an item that is for sale can be used by the storeowner himself on Shabbos or whether it would be considered Muktzah. He rules that he may do so if it is for the destined use of the item – i.e. if the item is shoes then it would be permissible to wear the shoes. He rules that they may not be used for a different purpose.
In Responsa #20 to Rav Shlomo Yitzchok Levin, the Rebbe answers an attack on a question that his father had posed regarding why the resting of a man’s child on Shabbos (Shvisas Bno) shouldn’t be derived from the verse demanding the rest of a man’s servant and animal on the Shabbos. He cites proof from a responsa of the Rashba that the question is indeed quite valid.
In Responsa #21 he deals extensively with the question of whether an invalid height of a Mechitzah will invalidate a Tzuras HaPesach in an Eiruv. He ruled that it does.
In Responsa #22 the Satmar Rebbe deals extensively with city Eiruvs where the Tzuras HaPesach is more than four tefachim away from the walls of the city’s Eiruv. He ruled that it is problematic.
In Responsa #23 he deals at length with an attack from Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Brach on his interpretation of Omed Merubah al haparutz regarding Mechitzos, particularly as to whether the Mogain Avrohom is in conflict with a Maharit.
In Responsa #24 he writes that he was not too sharp against Rabbi Brach but if he was – he apologizes for his tone. He discusses another aspect of the issue in that responsa.
In Responsa #25 the Satmar Rebbe deals with why regarding the obligation of v’higadeta l’bincha on Pesach the Rambam didn’t list as a separate Mitzvah the obligation to mention the exodus from Egypt each night? He answers that the obligation is from the same root and the main Mitzvah recited and explained on Pesach just needs to be reviewed in the regular nights.
In Responsa #26 the Satmar Rebbe writes to Rabbi Yeshaya Asher Zelig Margolios regarding the date of his grandson’s wedding that the Minhag in Satmar is not to get a haircut until Erev Shavuos and certainly not to conduct a wedding. He also discusses a solution to the problem of the Rambam’s view of a Chuppah when the woman is in a state of impurity – that merely informing the groom of her status negates the Rambam’s animadversions. [YH: This is a revolutionary position]
In Responsa #27 in a letter to Rav Menachem Paam in Eretz Yisroel he writes that the custom is to hold the upsherin in Meron Lag Ba’Omer and that he should uphold this custom.
In Responsa #28 he tells the congregation in Margareten that they may indeed retain their Chazan, Reb Yechiel, for Shabbos, Yom Tov and the Yomim Noraim even though he is a mourner. His reasoning was that since there is no one better than him, the Halacha permits it. [YH: This is a revolutionary view The love of the Satmar Rebbe in this responsa is readily apparent].
In Responsa #29 he writes to Rav Meyer Gavo in Toronto not to worry about being too ill this year to blow shofar and that Hashem counts the desire to fulfill the Mitzvah as if he did it. He differentiates this situation with that of wanting to be in a Sukkah and it is raining because that is not in the norm of the weather patterns in Eretz Yisroel, but illness due to the infirmities of age are quite normal. He blesses him with a complete recovery. [YH: The love of the Satmar Rebbe in this responsa too is readily apparent].
In Responsa #30 he recommends to Rav Avrohom Yitzchok HaKohain against excessive fasting for sins and suggests that charity be given instead. As far as an amount – he suggests that it should be equal to the tzaar of a fast to that individual.
In responsa #31 he advises someone who sinned terribly how to go about making things right. In explaining the element of “Azivas HaChait – no longer doing the sin” he advises the repentant sinner to make personal fences and boundaries. As far as expressing regret he advises him to do so in a heartfelt manner each day privately with Hashem, but to do so for a brief time and the rest of the day to serve Hashem with joy and hope that Hashem will certainly help him. Thridly, he advises him to engage in more Torah study, Tefilah and charity as much as he can and to do so with a sense of humility. He then offers additional encouragement
In responsa #32 to Rav Yuda Krauss, he explains the parameters of eating on Yom Kippur for an ill person. If there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether it could endanger life then one should eat. He did explain that care should be taken to ensure that the doctor is not saying these things because he wishes to undermine religious observance. Therefore, he advises that care must be taken to research a reliable doctor.
In Responsa #33 he disagrees with the suggestion of the Maharam Shick (on Taryag Mitzvos 605:2) that in a Jewish leap year one should try to fulfill the Mitzvah of remembering Amalek in Parshas Ki saitzay so that 12 months do not pass without this Mitzvah.
In Even HoEzer #107 the Satmar Rebbe argues with Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal on the controversial issue of artificial procreation. Rav Moshe tells us that the Midrash tells us that Ben Sira was conceived in such a manner involving Yirmiyahu and his daughter, and concludes that Yirmiyahu would never have later consulted with Ben Sira in spiritual matters if he was a halachic Mamzer. Artificial procreation, according to Rav Moshe’ s psak does not cause mamzeirus. The Satmar Rebbe dissents. He rules that even if all Rav Moshe’s suppositions were correct, Yirmiyahu’s daughter performed no real “maaseh –active deed.” Going to the doctor, on the other hand, would constitute an active deed.
In Responsa #157 he provides a remarkable explanation in the complex area of Hilchos Shabbos. There is a difficult Rosh that has eluded all the commentaries on the notion of Psik Raisha Delo Nicha Lay regarding other prohibitions other than the prohibition of Shabbos. The Satmar Rebbe’s reading resolved all the problems completely.
IN CM #98 the Satmar Rav discusses his opinion the notion of relying on lone opinions in times of difficulty (Daas Yachid BeShaas HaDeChak). It is a controversial area of halacha. Some take the idea at face value. Chazon Ish ruled that the concept is true only when the bottom line halacha was like that sole opinion and it was rejected out of a stringency, but not because the underlying was rejected. The Satmar Rebbe took a middle ground – it is a halacha that is true that during times of difficulty we rely on lone opinions, but the step may nly be taken by the leaders of the generation. The logic of his position is remarkable. Those unattuned to the underlying halachic difficulties that he is addressing between the lines will not fully appreciate the beauty of his remarkable intellect and pen.
Of course there were hard line positions that he had taken that were not understood by others. But no matter where anyone stands, and by any yardstick, he was a Tzaddik Gammur and a Gadol HaDor.
In conclusion, what we had in the Satmar Rebbe zatzal was a remarkable individual with the charisma to rebuild a nation, he combined his love for others with his charisma, and with the vast knowledge of the depth and breadth of the entirety of Torah.
Chaval al de’avdin.
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