Introduction from your Tour Guide:
Although I have a deep interest in history, especially Jewish history, the main focus of this tour of “Old Jerusalem” is not on history. And although I have an appreciation for beautiful sites within nature and within cities, the main focus of this tour is not on these sites. The main focus is on people – their spiritual vision and the way they express their vision in their personal lives and communal endeavors.
At the beginning of our tour of Old Jerusalem, we will accompany a leading elder sage, Rabbi Avraham Shaag, and his noted young disciple, Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld, on their journey from Hungary to Jerusalem in the spring of 1873. Through this journey, we will begin to get a sense of their great love for Zion. (Rabbi Chaim was later given the additional name “Yosef” due to an illness; thus, he later became known as Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.)
Rabbi Shaag was the dynamic spiritual leader of Hungarian Jews, and at age 72, when he felt that there were other leaders who could continue his community work in Hungary, he decided to go “home” – to Eretz Yisrael. He first sent his son, Rabbi Yissachar Ber, to Eretz Yisrael, so that he could arrange basic accommodations for Rabbi Avraham and the family in Jerusalem. His close disciple, Rabbi Chaim, was twenty-four years old; however, he was already known in Central Europe as a great Torah scholar and great tzaddik – righteous person. He had a future as one of Central Europe’s leading rabbis; in fact, a wealthy Jew from Pressburg who had learned of Rabbi Chaim’s plans to depart for Eretz Yisrael offered to provide him with complete support for his entire life if he would consent to remain in the Diaspora. Rabbi Chaim, with the consent of his wife, Sarah, willingly gave all this up in order to live in Eretz Yisrael.
The day of departure arrived. On 9 Iyar, 5633 (1873), R’ Avraham Shaag, R’Chaim, and their families traveled to Trieste, Italy, where they would continue by ship to Eretz Yisrael. After they arrived in Trieste, they boarded a Greek ship bound for Jaffa, a city on the coast of Eretz Yisrael.
Blessed with beautiful weather and smooth quiet seas, the journey was pleasant and uneventful. The ship glided across the shimmering waters eastward along the path of Israel’s prayers towards Jerusalem. As the shores of Europe began to recede, the faces of the two tzaddikim became suffused with the glow of supreme happiness. The ship itself, serving as the vehicle of their entry into Eretz Yisrael, seemed to them almost an extension of the Holy Land. Standing on the deck and looking out over the endless blue expanse, R’ Avraham remarked that this sentiment was more than just poetic. According to the opinion of R’ Yehudah (Talmud Gittin 8a), the entire Mediterranean opposite Eretz Yisrael has the legal status of Eretz Yisrael. At least according to this one opinion, they were already in the Holy Land.
After ten days at sea, the boat docked in Alexandria, Egypt, on Friday afternoon. The ship weighed anchor immediately after Shabbos, and headed towards Jaffa. As soon as the vessel reached the open seas, R’ Avraham and R’ Chaim went on deck. There, bathed in the faint glow of the waning moon, they passed almost the entire night engrossed in studying the halachos – requirements of the Torah path – regarding Eretz Yisrael.
At daybreak, the two davened Shacharis (prayed the morning prayers). As they sat down to eat a light breakfast, the ship’s captain announced that they would soon sight the shores of Eretz Yisrael. The imminent realization of a life’s dream made them greatly excited. They were overwhelmed with a desire to do something – anything – to hurry the slowly moving ship to its destination. Finally, R’ Chaim could restrain himself no longer. He ran to the ship’s mast and swiftly scaled the rope ladder to the crow’s nest. From this perch high above the ship, his eyes were the first to glimpse in the distance the yellow ribbon of land jutting out into the blue sea. He began to shout, “Rebbe, rebbi, there is the Holy Land! I see it! I really see it! Really, the Land itself!”
The excited shouts caused a crowd to gather on deck and gaze curiously at the spectacle of the young scholar clinging to the top of the mast. Several passengers urged R’ Chaim to come down from his precarious perch but he refused, still shouting excitedly. Only after being assured that the shores could be seen from the deck would R’ Chaim agree to descend.
The ship dropped anchor some distance from the shore, and several small boats came out to ferry the passengers into the port. R’ Avraham’s son, R’ Yissachar Ber, came out in one of these boats, and after an emotional reunion between parents and son, the party set out for shore.
When R’ Avraham and R’ Chaim touched the soil of the Holy Land, they prostrated themselves on the ground and kissed it fervently while murmuring the following verse regarding the Land of Zion:
“For Your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust” (Psalm 102:15).
After they arose, R ’Chaim’s wife, Sarah, unobtrusively dipped her finger into the small pool of tears that had gathered where R’ Avraham, the tzaddik, had lain and touched them to her eyes and face. She would later remark that she believed that it was in the merit of her tears touching those shed by the holy tzaddik which enabled her to overcome the many trials and tribulations which confronted her in the ensuing fifty years.
Early the next morning, a wagon with benches was waiting for them at the inn where they spent the night. They boarded it and set out on the road to Jerusalem. As they came closer to Jerusalem, the awareness that they were traveling the same route traversed by the festival pilgrims thousands of years before overwhelmed both R’ Avraham and R’ Chaim. But as they reached the mountaintop town of Abbu Ghosh and caught their first glimpse of the desolation of Judea and Jerusalem, they rent their garments as prescribed by the halacha.
At the village of Motza, they were met by a delegation sent from the Jews of Jerusalem to welcome the illustrious leader of Hungarian Jewry. The delegation – headed by R’ Meir Auerbach (Ashkenazic Rav of Jerusalem), R’ Shmuel Salant (who later succeeded R’ Meir Auerbach), and R’ Nechemiah Kahanov – greeted the new arrivals with great warmth and enthusiasm. R’ Chaim asked someone to lend him a suit of Jerusalem clothing so as not to enter the Holy City in European attire. After some brief refreshments and Mincha (afternoon prayers), the entire group made the final approach to Jerusalem. They entered the city gates just before sundown and caught their first glimpse of the Temple Mount. The newcomers again rent their garments, this time over the destruction of the Temple.
They would soon experience their first Shabbos in Jerusalem. As the sun cast its long last golden rays on the rooftops of Jerusalem, a loud horn blast announced the arrival of Shabbos. On this particular Shabbos, the horn’s dying echoes found R’ Avraham Shaag, his son, and R’ Chaim on their way to the Kosel (Western Wall) to daven there.
R’ Chaim later related that the spiritual fervor which possessed his rebbe while saying the prayers of welcome for Shabbos at the Kosel was virtually indescribable. When R’ Avraham reached the stanza – “O Sanctuary of the King, royal city, arise and come forth from amidst your ruins, too long have you dwelt in the valley of weeping” – he stretched out his hand and fixed his gaze heavenward; tears streamed down his face and his body assumed an almost trancelike posture. One could actually see the yearning for the return of Hashem’s Presence to this place enveloping his entire being. This became so intense that R’ Chaim feared that R’ Avraham’s soul was about to depart from his body. R’ Avraham finally broke the trance and shouted the concluding verse, “And He will have mercy upon you!”
R’ Chaim and Sarah had just that afternoon moved into an unfinished apartment after spending their first four nights under the open sky, and so they ate their first Shabbos meal in Eretz Yisrael in the company of R’ Avraham at the home of his son, R’ Yissachar Ber. When the men arrived home from the kosel, they found the three wives, who had completed the evening prayers, engaged in an animated discussion of Hashem’s great kindness to them.
R’ Chaim had always observed a special glow of holiness on his rebbe’s face on Shabbos, but this Shabbos, it was an entirely otherworldly glow that radiated from R’ Avraham’s face. They sang a rapturous Shalom Aleichem before the meal, and during zemiros (the Shabbos table songs), they sang with incredible feeling for almost an hour the following stanza in Kah Ribon Olam:
“Please God, return to Your Temple and the Holy of Holies, the place where spirits and souls will rejoice; where they will sing to you songs and praises in Jerusalem, city of beauty.”
When R’ Chaim returned home that night, he stood looking out the window of his humble dwelling for some time, surveying his new surroundings. In a brilliantly illuminated window of a nearby home, he discerned a man dressed in shiny Chassidic Shabbos garb fervently dancing back and forth, singing over and over, “Shabbos, Shabbos! Precious Shabbos, holy Shabbos, sweet Shabbos; Shabbos, Shabbos!” R’ Chaim stood watching this wonderful scene far into that unforgettable night.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The above information about their journey to Jerusalem is found in the following work: “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Mesorah Publications). For further information on this recommended work, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH