Yet what was supposed to be a list & review of several books ended up turning into one long review of what was, for me, the most transformational of the books:
Guardian of Jerusalem: The Life & Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld written by his grandson, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. (Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld ztz"l was born in Eastern Europe in 1848 and passed away in Eretz Yisrael in 1932.)
This is an abridged translation of the 3-volume Hebrew Ha'Ish al HaChomah (The Man on the Wall).
On the other hand, while I and others found this book transformational, I met other people who found the book merely “interesting” or even just so-so.
Yet for me, this pivotal book opened my eyes to so much.
For example, the people I was always taught to respect as the “pioneering heroes” of Turkish- and then British-occupied Palestine were actually dangerous power-hungry rabble-rousers who either cared very little for or outright hated Judaism, and continuously endangered their fellow Jews.
Ironically, these "pioneering heroes" nearly wiped out Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael — which was then rescued by the very ultra-Orthodox rabbis so profoundly despised by these pioneering heroes and their adherents; such adherents also include historians who should know better.
The Hidden Truth: How Eliezer Ben-Yehudah Nearly Caused the Mass Expulsion of the Entire Jewish Population under the Ottoman Empire, & Who were Ultimately Saved by the Wise Intervention of the Sephardi Sage Rav Yaakov Shaul Elyashar & the Ashkenazi Sage Rav Shmuel Salant
Yet he created great problems, not only for religious Jews in Eretz Yisrael, but for all Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, and ultimately ended up endangering every single one of the Jews living under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
For instance, Ben-Yehudah published an article in 1895 that seemed to encourage a bloody revolution of the Jews against the Turkish rulers.
And while religious Jews have always been coming to Eretz Yisrael over the millennia, it was the new secular nationalist Jewish movement that caused the Turkish rulers to ban Jewish immigration in 1884.
Sometimes, the Ottoman authorities issued decrees prohibiting Jews from outside of Eretz Yisrael to buy land or housing in Eretz Yisrael. When some Jews tried to go around this prohibition, the Turkish authorities expanded the decrees to ban home repairs — like fixing leaky roofs.
Needless to say, this not only impeded Jewish aliyah, but also increased the deprivations of Jews already settled in the Holy Land.
In fact, the famed tzaddik, Rav Shmuel Salant, tried intervening with the Turkish governor to allow Jewish aliyah, but the nationalist revolution-mongering articles repeatedly published in the secular Jewish newspapers of Eastern Europe kept the Turks in a state of wariness. It was only with great effort that Rav Salant was able to convince the Turks to re-open Jewish immigration.
This is only one example of this particular historical deception put out by the secular Left.
So it was actually the “ultra”-Orthodox Jewish Sages who came to (or were born in) Eretz Yisrael, these same pious Sages who lived in Eretz Yisrael and did everything they could to keep the borders open for the aliyah of their fellow Jews.
The secular Leftists in Eastern Europe who called themselves “Zionists” and embraced Communism were the ones who actually provoked the bans on aliyah and stunted Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael.
But you’ll never hear that outside the frum community because in the Leftist narrative, the Torah-observant Jews are always the bad guys and the obstacles, and the assimilated “progressive” Jews are always the heroes.
So when the Turkish rulers got wind of this article, it spelled very bad news for ALL Jews throughout the empire.
As a result, Rav Salant convened a meeting of fellow Sages, including Rav Sonnenfeld.
Rav Sonnenfeld advised turning to the local Sephardi Gadol Hador Rav Yaakov Shaul Elyashar for assistance.
Due to all the nationalist revolution-mongering sentiment coming out of secular Jewish Europe, the Turks lost their trust of Ashkenazi Jews (although Rav Salant himself still had some influence). Because the Sephardi Jews under their reign never agitated against them, they still trusted the Sephardi Jews.
Along these lines, Rav Sonnenfeld recommended that Rav Salant and the Ashkenazi beit din proclaim their support of Rav Elyashar, to which Rav Salant and the other Ashkenazi rabbis immediately agreed.
The Ashkenazi Gadolei Hador sent a rabbinical emissary to this Sephardi Sage Rav Elyashar with a copy of the incriminating article. Upon reading Ben-Yehudah’s inflammatory message, Rav Elyashar became incensed upon realizing the danger his beloved Jewish brethren were suddenly in.
Rav Elyashar immediately contacted the Turkish authorities with a message of unequivocal rejection of the ideas within the article, insisting that such ideas did not reflect the Jewish community at large.
This showed Heavenly assisted foresight because at that moment, news of the article reached the seat of the empire in Constantinople, which resulted in the Sultan himself summoning the Gadol of Turkey, Rav Moshe HaLevi.
The advisers to the Sultan recommended harsh measures against the Jews. In fact, unbeknownst to any of the Jews (including these great Sages) of that time, the Turkish council decided it wanted to expel ALL Jews from the ENTIRE Ottoman empire!
(According to my estimates, this included around a million Jews — maybe less.)
Needless to say, this would have sparked a terrible catastrophe for Sephardi Jewry, with nowhere to go — and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael included in this expulsion! At that time, the Ottoman Empire compassed Jewish communities throughout the entire Middle East (minus Arabia & Iran).
Fortunately, the Sultan held such a high opinion of Rav Yaakov Shaul Elyashar & Rav Shmuel Salant (the two leading Sephardi & Ashkenazi authorities in Eretz Yisrael at that time), the Sultan first wished to hear from these two great Sages.
A reply to the Sultan was dictated by Rav Elyashar in his name & the name of Rav Shmuel Salant to Rav Yosef Rivlin, who then sent it to Rav Moshe HaLevi in Turkey.
Admirably, the reply was straight-foward & unapologetic about the innate Jewish yearning for the re-establishment of Tzion & Yerushalayim.
Yet it stated this fundamental Torah concept in an appealing & non-threatening manner.
The great Sage emphasized the Jewish yearning to return to Yerushalayim & live under their own king, but emphasized that they are praying for God to bring this about. He also reassured the Sultan that Jews are commanded to pray for the welfare of whatever kingdom they live in and that they certainly pray for the welfare of the Turkish empire.
This communiqué signed by the 2 great Sages of Eretz Yisrael freed the Sultan to refuse to issue a decree of expulsion.
Interestingly, this communiqué also saved Ben-Yehudah, whom the Turks wanted to punish harshly. Instead, he was sentenced to 1 year in prison (which is still pretty bad, considering the Turkish prisons of that time) — but even that sentence was eventually suspended.
Yet how was this tremendous salvation reported by the agitating anti-Torah activists in Europe?
The secular Jewish newspaper HaTzefira condemned this heroic act of the Gedolei Hador as “mesirah”—informing on fellow Jews to the non-Jewish authorities!
It bears emphasizing again: The Turkish authorities already knew about the article. It wasn't the Sages who brought it to their attention. If there was any mesirah here, it was committed by Ben-Yehudah and the irresponsible publishers of such articles. And anyway, this wasn't the only article that worried the Turks; this had been going on for a while.
So we see how a distorted Jewish history is taught to unsuspecting Jews outside the Torah community.
Saved by the "Black Arm" of a Complete Tzaddik
At one point, Rav Sonnenfeld went way out of his way to save the life of a terrible Jew (“one of the leaders of the Zionist Labor Federation, known for his virulent anti-religious attacks”) who needed the superior medical treatment provided only at Shaarei Tzedek hospital...and only Rav Sonnenfeld could make it happen.
To provide some background: The Beit Din of Yerushalayim had placed a ban on anyone who entered the Missionary Hospital, whether for work or for treatment, with dire results for anyone who violated this ban.
Anyway, it was assumed that the legendary Dr. Wallach of Shaarei Tzedek would refuse to admit a person who both intentionally chose treatment at the Missionary Hospital (despite the ban and the poorer medical treatment there) and who operated as a rabid anti-Torah Leftist bent on destroying Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael.
Indeed, upon being brought to Shaarei Tzedek, the Leftist and his family encountered resistance from Dr. Wallach.
Interestingly, the family asked an off-the-derech youth to approach Rav Sonnenfeld.
This youth was the son of a big talmid chacham and well-known to Rav Sonnenfeld. This youth also knew that Rav Sonnenfeld was “quite upset” with this same youth for leaving Torah and befriending this anti-Torah Leftist.
Nonetheless, this same youth approached Rav Sonnenfeld at home, where Rav Sonnenfeld still received this youth with warmth.
Upon hearing of the urgent situation, the rav braved a severe thunderstorm to rush to Shaarei Tzedek, where Rav Sonnenfeld insisted that halacha demanded the admission of this dangerously ill traitor (but promised to discuss the matter with Dr. Wallach later).
Two weeks later, the anti-Torah Leftist experienced a miraculous recovery, then continued his nefarious activities.
Knowing how much the Leftist disliked Rav Sonnenfeld, none of the Leftist's associates informed him of Rav Sonnenfeld’s life-saving intervention & mesirut nefesh.
By the way, this also shows the mentality of such misguided people. Why not tell the Leftist leader? Why not tell this rabid hater that one of the Gadolei Hador saved his life? Maybe it would soften him up a bit. At least, it might stop him from attacking the tzaddikim. Maybe he’d more willingly to hear Rav Sonnenfeld’s side and compromise a bit.
But those who knew davka decided to be careful not to tell him. So once again, we see that Leftists don’t really pursue peace; they have other agendas.
Anyway, a year later, this same Leftist delivered a keynote speech at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new settlement in the North. When he reached the climax of his speech, this Leftist gave a frenzied shout:
“We will build this land by waging a fight to the death against the black arm of Rabbi Sonnenfeld and his cronies!”
This frenzied proclamation spurred the youth to jump to his feet and shout his protest against such slander.
At the invitation of the shocked Leftist, the youth took over the podium and explained to all assembled “exactly how the ‘black arm’ of R’ Chaim Sonnenfeld had interceded to save the life of one who had vowed to destroy him.”
Not that this revelation of Rav Sonnenfeld's great goodness softened up the haters.
They continued on as they were.
Big Government Agendas Cause Big Problems
Because they don’t actually care about their fellow Jews, but only their own political interests, they tend to make concessions when it’s better to be unyielding, and conversely, display aggression when diplomacy would work better.
History has shown again & again that Socialism & Communism demand a complete takeover of the government.
Because these movements necessitate what’s known as “big government,” this inherently means that they must take over all aspects of government. By virtue of their big government policies, Socialism & Communism demand complete domination (for themselves) and complete submission (of their citizens).
(And in the case of the Communists, this domination & submission repeatedly occurs via much cruelty & bloodshed.)
But people like Rav Sonnenfeld & other Gedolei Hador (who actually care about all Jews) knew when to stand tough and when to seek peace. Real talmidei chachamim routinely seek win-win solutions, which benefit the surrounding non-Jews too.
In fact, Rav Sonnenfeld decided to make a kind of peace agreement with the King of Jordan (known at that time as King Hussein ibn-Ali of the Hashemite Kingdom).
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld Makes True Peace with Jordan - WITHOUT Any Dangerous or Disruptive Concessions
Once again, we see repeated throughout history that our holy tzaddikim often win the love and respect of the non-Jewish leaders.
As the last Gemara in Brachot says: "Talmidei chachamim increase shalom in the world."
Rav Sonnenfeld sought a meeting with the king to enable unlimited Jewish aliyah, but was thwarted by the secular Leftists who wanted to take over.
Unfortunately, the anti-Torah Leftists discovered this planned charedi delegation and denounced it as “treacherous,” presenting it as undermining the interests of the people of Israel.
(It didn't. It only improved the interests of the people of Israel. However, it did loosen the anti-Torah Leftist stranglehold on Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael.)
The anti-Torah Leftists also resorted to physical threats, which intimidated several of the charedi delegates into withdrawing.
However, 3 delegates managed to reach the king and presented an appealing plea, not only for continued aliyah, but also for an improvement in the conditions of the Jews already living in Eretz Yisrael.
The king received them warmly, bestowed honors upon them, and even handed them a large sum of money to be distributed among the Jewish poor of Yerushalayim.
The Love of a Tzaddik for Eretz Yisrael is Greater than Anyone Else's
In fact, Rav Sonnenfeld was not afraid to tell Chaim Weizmann that:
“The right to be called a ‘Zionist’ belongs only to those who pray thrice daily, ‘May our eyes behold Your Return to Zion in mercy.’ The meaning of ‘Zion’ is spiritual, not geographical.”
“merely a geographical, political, physical concept in which you seek to establish theaters and cultural institutions the same as all the nations, while severing ties with our glorious past…There is no greater travesty than this!”
Rav Sonnenfeld lovingly told a grandson (who received an invitation to serve as rav in one of Czechoslovakia’s leading communities):
“My son, I feel that being a laborer in Eretz Yisrael is greater than being a Rav in Chutz La’Aretz…”
After the savage riots & massacres of 1929, Rav Sonnenfeld insisted on performing a bris milah in an area that necessitated his passing through some particularly dangerous Yishmaeli neighborhoods.
When a friend literally grabbed Rav Sonnenfeld’s arm and begged him not to proceed, Rav Sonnenfeld declared:
“I will go specifically via the Damascus Gate and thus inform the Arabs that they have not succeeded in frightening Jews out of even one section of the Holy City.”
The Reality of Torah-Loving Jews who Invested in the Mitzvah of Yishuv Ha'Aretz vs. The Reality of the Torah-Hating Jews who Called Themselves "Zionists": Compare & Contrast
You see his dedication toward peace among fellow Jews, particularly among the different groups of Torah-observant Jews, and also peace with non-Jewish authorities in an effort to prevent wars and bloodshed of both Jews & non-Jews.
The ultimate example of a warrior from love, Rav Sonnenfeld exemplified humility & a total commitment to Hashem.
In contrast, the viciousness & power-lust of the anti-Torah Leftists also come through:
- their willingness to assassinate individuals who interfere with their grab for power
- their willingness to starve entire communities, including children
- You see their impetuousness that threatens Jews far & wide.
- You see exactly how their ego-driven efforts actually shut down the very aliyah they claim they stand for and increase the suffering of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael
This is also seen through the secular manipulation of the Sephardi communities, which continued long after the establishment of Medinat Yisrael.
While the Ashkenazi tzaddikim (like Rav Sonnenfeld) displayed great concern for their Sephardi brethren, the secular Leftists would plot against the Ashkenazi religious community and when the religious Ashkenazim resisted, the Leftists would cry, “Racism!” and insist they were acting on behalf of the Sephardim.
They never were, as repeatedly shown by their actions since then.
From Whence Came Such Wellsprings of Hate toward Such a Paragon of Love?
Here was a man who loved Hashem so much, he couldn't help but to love Hashem's Land and also Hashem's people — even the most errant ones.
Looking at just a sampling of what Rav Sonnenfeld achieved:
- He saved Ottoman Jewry from terrible suffering.
- He saved the entire Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael (exactly what the self-proclaimed Zionist claimed to be so gung-ho about).
- He saved Ben-Yehudah from harsh punishment.
- He saved one of his vicious opposers from certain death.
- He refused to allow others to say yemach shemo when mentioning Ben-Yehudah.
- He even found a positive merit in the extremely dysfunctional Ben-Yehudah.
— How is it possible to hate such a person as Rav Sonnenfeld?
Not to mention that as far as Jewish assertion over who Eretz Yisrael really belongs to: Rav Sonnenfeld showed far more dedication & courage than the anti-Torah Leftists who made settling the Land into a Nationalist Communist vision, rather than a holy one.
Why did this paragon of love (love of God, love of Torah, love of the Jewish people, love of Eretz Yisrael) engender such hatred, including from the very people who benefited from his efforts?
(Even if they didn't know of his efforts on their behalf at the time, they still should have been able to sense his sincerity, holiness, and caring — because it was so palpable.)
And I think it goes back to a chassidish idea: A tzaddik is a mirror.
(Please see the story of The Black Wolf for illustration of this concept.)
These anti-Torah Leftists were full of ego and hunger for power & dominance. They literally hated anyone who got in their way. (You must have a very black heart indeed if you are able to starve small children death.)
I think that they couldn't grasp the concept of love and living your life out of love.
I think they couldn't ever relate to going to battle out of love rather than hate & ego.
And when they saw someone who represented everything they weren't, it looked so wrong that they literally could not tolerate him.
Along these lines, there is the well-known rabid envy that some uneducated people feel toward Torah scholars, as described by Rebbi Akiva in Pesachim, that when he was an illiterate man, he could have bitten the Torah scholars with the bone-shattering gnash of a donkey.
A Valuable Resource to Read Again & Again
Ultimately, I found myself in heartfelt agreement with the man who told Rav Sonnenfeld's grandson (page 135):
"So many people think that they understand who R' Chaim [Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld] was, but in truth, just as the followers of Mizrachi did not truly appreciate Rav Kook, the followers of Agudah did not truly appreciate R' Chaim."