Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the Admor of Erlau, Dies at 93

The rebbe, laid to rest in Jerusalem, had been considered the oldest head of a Hasidic dynasty; son Moshe expected to become new Admor of Erlau.

Yair Ettinger
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The funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the Admor of Erlau, in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2016.
The funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the Admor of Erlau, in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2016.Credit: AP
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the Admor of Erlau, died Monday morning at 93. He had been considered the oldest head of a Hasidic dynasty, and was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The rabbi headed a community of hundreds of families centered in Jerusalem’s Old Katamon neighborhood, and was a member of the Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages. (Admor is an acronym for Master, Teacher and Rabbi, and is the title accorded the head of a Hasidic dynasty.)

Rabbi Sofer was a fifth-generation descendant of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer). The latter was considered one of the most important figures in the development of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism in Hungary in the early 18th century. Rabbi Sofer’s grandfather started a community in the city of Erlau, Hungary. He himself was born in 1923, survived the Holocaust and afterward began to rehabilitate the community started by his grandfather, who was both a Hasid and Mitnaged (those who opposed Hasidism). First, he gathered the Holocaust survivors in Budapest and after the establishment of the State of Israel, immigrated there with his disciples and settled in Old Katamon, alongside many refugees from the Old City.

The center of the Erlau dynasty is still on the border of the Greek Colony in Old Katamon. Sofer is one of the few admors who remained with fellow Hasidim in a non-Haredi part of the city, while maintaining excellent neighborly relations. The dynasty also has branches in Givat Moshe (in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox area) and London.

Rabbi Sofer was a right-wing extremist on the Council of Torah Sages, and expressed opposition to any concession of territory in negotiations with the Palestinians and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. In 2005, during those periods, the settler leaders found him sympathetic to their cause, and he was accused of “Zionism” by other Haredim. Rabbi Meir Porush, leader of the Shlomei Emunim Knesset faction, considered himself an emissary of the admor.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer of the Erlau Hasidic dynasty, in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2016.Credit: AP
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews mourn for prominent Jewish Rabbi Yochanan Sofer of the Erlau dynasty during his funeral in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2016.Credit: AP
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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy wears a plastic bag over his hat as it rains during the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the spiritual leader of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, February 22, 2016.Credit: Reuters

A few years ago, the rebbe suffered a stroke and in effect stopped leading the dynasty at that point. His son, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, was summoned from London to take over. With his father’s death, he is expected to be officially declared the new Admor of Erlau.

The funeral procession set out from the Greek Colony toward the Erlau Yeshiva in Givat Moshe, and from there to the Mount of Olives, where Rabbi Sofer was buried next to his wife.

President Reuven Rivlin paid tribute to him on his Facebook page, writing that the admor was “a unique figure, beloved and admired by secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. With his pleasant ways, he represented both the Hasidim and Mitnagdim of Hungarian Jewry.

“The death of a public leader and head of a dynasty who was a Holocaust survivor and refugee who lost his father, mother and sisters in the labor and death camps, must also remind us of the respect and concern for the Holocaust survivors whose numbers are steadily dwindling, and the obligation to tell our people’s history until the last generation.”

The Shas party said the movement and its leaders “are bitterly mourning the death of the oldest admor,” and noted that he was a close friend of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Shas’ spiritual leader), and that “they exchanged dozens of letters on matters of Torah and halakha [Jewish religious law] with expressions of admiration and respect.”

The party added that the Admor of Erlau “gave his soul throughout his life for the sake of the public and the community.”