Rabbi Avraham Shaag • “The Rav of Kobelsdorf”

Three shepherds of Israel have placed Jerusalem at the head of their concerns. They always dreamed of returning to Zion, and they impatiently awaited the day when they could settle down in Eretz Israel and cherish its soil. These were the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov, and the Chatam Sofer, men who also encouraged their disciples to ascend to Zion and to raise it from its ruins.

The disciples of the Vilna Gaon went to Eretz Israel in 5568 (1808) and established outposts for the Ashkenaz community in Jerusalem, while those of the Baal Shem Tov settled in Sefat and Tiberias. The disciples of the Chatam Sofer did a great deal of work for renewing settlements in Jerusalem and establishing agricultural villages throughout the country.

One of the Chatam Sofer’s disciples, who went to Eretz Israel near the end of his life and participated in every aspect of community life there, was the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Shaag, the Rav of Kobelsdorf.

Rabbi Avraham Shaag (Zwebner) was born on Iyar 4, 5561 (1801) in the city of Freistadt, Hungary to Rabbi Yehuda Leib, who was among the greatest disciples of Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the author of Noda Biyhuda. The family name of Rabbi Yehuda Leib was actually Zwebner, but once when he asked his Rav, the Noda Biyhuda, a difficult question, the latter replied: “A lion shaag [has roared]; who will not fear?” [Amos 3:8].” From that time on, people began calling him “Shaag”.

He lost his father near the age of four, and his mother sent him to Rabbi Yitzchak Fraenkel, the Rav of Roggendorf, so that he teach him Torah and mitzvot. The young boy was very gifted, and about the age of 10 he already knew a great part of the Talmud. When he reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, he went to study at the Chatam Sofer’s yeshiva in Pressburg, and there he rapidly became know as one of Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s best students. His Rav would often boast of him to the Torah greats who came to visit him.

One day, accompanied by his son Rabbi Avraham Shemuel Binyamin, the Chatam Sofer organized an inspection after midnight in the student’s dormitory. When they approached the room of the young Avraham Shaag, they could hear from afar the sounds of Torah that arose from the room. Both of them, the Rav and his son, remained listening joyfully to his voice for a long time. The Chatam Sofer then turned to his son and said, “Observe and listen. This is how one must study!”

From that point on, the Chatam Sofer greatly respected and spoke well of him. People say that one day, Rabbi Avraham Shaag was at the home of the Chatam Sofer, who was with another great Rav. When Rabbi Avraham got up and left, the Chatam Sofer accompanied him for a good part of the way. The other Rav was astonished and said, “It is proper to honor a great man in such a way, but not a young avrech!” In hearing this, the Chatam Sofer called Rabbi Avraham back to his home, at which point he placed a very difficult passage of the Talmud before him. When the other Rav heard Rabbi Avraham’s explanation of the passage, he changed his mind and later said to the Chatam Sofer, “You were really correct to accompany him with such honor. He is completely worthy of it.” In fact the Chatam Sofer once said that there was no greater Talmid Chacham than Rabbi Avraham within 20 kilometers.

Before the age of 25, Rabbi Avraham became the Rav and Av Beit Din of the city of Schottelsdorf. He thereupon opened a yeshiva, which young men flocked to from near and far to hear his Torah. The city, which before his arrival was devoid of Torah and mitzvot, became a center of Torah and the fear of Heaven during the 25 years that Rabbi Avraham was its Rav.

From Schottelsdorf, he went to the community of Kobelsdorf (the name by which he is known), where he remained as Rav until his departure for Eretz Israel.

As was his habit, Rabbi Avraham Shaag was not content with enclosing himself in the tent of Torah study. Rather, he was in the first line of defense against the assimilationists and reformers, calling upon people with impassioned words to be vigilant and defend the holiness of Israel. He proved to be a leader who knew how to safely and loyally guide the ship of Judaism and thus prevent it from sinking in the ocean of unbelief. Little by little, he became the spokesperson and leader of Hungarian and Austrian Jewry.

His yeshiva was also filled to capacity. Each day for six hours in a row, he would remain standing to give courses to youngsters. Even in the twilight of his life, when he was sick and weak, he stood as he gave his courses. Despite his numerous occupations, he found the time to write responsa to those who asked him questions, and he was in contact with the greatest men of his generation on matters of Halachah.

In 5631 (1871), at the age of 70, he decided to fulfill the ambition of his life and leave for Eretz Israel, the land that his soul ardently yearned for. When his plans became known, the greatest Rabbis of Hungary came to see him and implored him to take the situation of Judaism at that critical time into account. Thus his voyage was postponed.

However in 5633 (1873), he made the definitive decision to go and settle in Eretz Israel. To those who once again asked him not to leave, he replied that from the time he heard his Rav the Chatam Sofer speaking of Eretz Israel and its holiness, he had decided to ascend the mount of G-d and settle down near the Holy of holies, considering his life in exile as being temporary. He added that he had never spent a day, nor an hour, without yearning for Zion.

At the end of a 20-day journey, the boat carrying Rabbi Avraham Shaag arrived on a Friday at dusk at the port of Alexandria. He remained there on Shabbat, and during the entire day he stayed in his cabin in the bowels of the ship, without leaving, because of the prohibition “You shall no longer return on this road [to Egypt] again” (Deuteronomy 17:16).

On Sunday, Iyar 21 the lion of Hungary walked upon the soil of the Holy Land. He prostrated himself to the ground and kissed it as he said, “For Your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust” (Psalms 102:15).

Not long after his arrival in Jerusalem, Rabbi Avraham Shaag greatly desired to purchase some land in Eretz Israel, and he wanted even more that it be near Jerusalem. He purchased a parcel of land near the city walls at the Jaffa Gate on the west. On this site a series of shops were built that remained as the commercial center of both parts of Jerusalem until 5708 (1948). After the Six Day War, all the structures that had been built on the site were removed, and the walls of the old city once again appeared.

Rabbi Avraham Shaag remained in Jerusalem for about three years. On Shabbat, the eve of Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5636 (1876), he rendered his soul to Heaven and was buried on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.

His main disciple, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the Rav of Jerusalem, recounted the following: “This last Friday, when his classes were finished, my teacher concluded by stating, ‘We are staying here.’ This is something that he had never said at the end of a lecture, which in general finished by him kissing the margins of the Gemara.”

Finally, we end with a story concerning this great Tzaddik. An elderly woman from the city of Kleinvardein in Hungary arrived in Jerusalem asking where the grave of the Tzaddik was. When she was asked why she had gone to all the trouble of traveling from abroad to pray by his grave, she told the following story: “My mother was our holy Rav’s servant almost one hundred years ago, and at that time the Rav was entrusted with a large sum of money to keep safe. Since he was engrossed in study, he left this money in the book he was reading at the time, and when he finished studying he closed the book and placed it back on its shelf. After a certain time, the owner of the money came to ask him for it, but he couldn’t find it. The Rav began to suspect that his servant girl had perhaps taken it, yet he repaid the owner from his own pocket. When the holiday of Passover approached, the Rav was leafing through the pages of his books in order to look for chametz, and he found the money in the book that he had been studying. Upon seeing this, the Rav was stunned by the realization that he had suspected his servant girl. He then called to her and explained the whole story, asking her to forgive him as tears streamed down his face. He added that he was ready to grant her whatever she wanted. My mother for her part told him that she forgave him completely, and that she would only ask for one thing – his blessing. She had been married for already 15 years at that point, but didn’t have any children. Our teacher blessed her and said, ‘This year you shall have a child.’ ” The elderly woman continued: “I am the child of that woman, and for her entire life my mother yearned to come to our Holy Land and pray by the grave of that Tzaddik. Now, the Holy One, blessed be He, has given me the opportunity to come and perform my mother’s wish.” (HaIsh Al HaChoma, Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld).




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