Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l, On His Yahrtzeit, Today, 9 Tammuz


rav-zalman-sorotzkinThe directors of a Bnei Brak talmud Torah once discovered that they had no money to pay their staff, so they traveled to Yerushalayim to discuss their problem with Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, known as the Rav of Lutsk. It was midwinter and they had to force their way through snow and mud to reach his house. Inside they were astonished to find Rav Sorotzkin and his wife shivering from the intense cold – their small petrol heater was empty.

This man who organized millions of dollars in support for the Chinuch Atzmai school network refused to spare a few pennies for himself. Against his will the directors made their way to a nearby gas station and filled up his heater.

This story typifies Rav Sorotzkin, who touched the lives of tens of thousands, yet gave hardly a thought to his own needs.


Rav Sorotzkin was one of orthodox Jewry’s primary helmsmen during the past century. His influence and contributions to Yiddishkeit began well before World War I and continued until his very last day. Virtually no sphere of Jewish communal life was left untouched by his guiding hands.

Born in 1881 (5641) in Zachrina, Lithuania, Rav Sorotzkin studied with his father, Rav Ben Zion, who served as the city’s rav. He also learned in the yeshivos of Volozhin and Slabodka, where he became known as an illui. When he married the daughter of Rav Eliezer Gordon, Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe, he moved to Telshe to help Rav Eliezer run the yeshiva.

In his memoirs Rav Sorotzkin describes those early years. “My father-in-law became ill,” he relates, “and went to recuperate in Bavaria. In his absence I headed the yeshiva and served as the rav of Telshe. After he was niftar, the townspeople offered me the position of rav and maggid shiur in the yeshiva, but for some reason I refused even though I was now left with no income.

“Heaven helped me and I soon became rav in Voronova, which lies between Lidda and Vilna. Because it was only fifteen minutes from Vilna I became very close to Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.”


KAlthough Rav Sorotzkin was just 30 years old when he assumed the position of rav in Voronova and only served there for two years, he lost no time in revamping the chinuch of the town and immediately established a yeshiva ketana there.

Afterward, Rav Sorotzkin moved to Zhetel where he served as rav for 18 years. Because this town was the Chofetz Chaim’s birthplace, the Chofetz Chaim always affectionately referred to Rav Sorotzkin as “my” rav. “Zhetel was famous for its outstanding rabbinical leaders,” Rav Sorotzkin recalls in his memoirs. “The town was packed with talmidei chachamim and unbelievably permeated with Torah study. In the evenings the batei midrash were chock-full and anyone late for mincha was unable to find a shtender to learn on. “Zhetel already had a yeshiva,” continues Rav Sorotzkin, “so I concentrated on its Talmud Torah. Although it had a few hundred students, because of organizational problems many people hired private tutors for their children.

I energetically introduced many improvements, and soon everyone began sending their children to the Talmud Torah.”


In 1914 (5674) the Germans invaded Poland and Rav Sorotzkin fled to Minsk, where he continued his communal work unabated. He also became a close friend of the Chazon Ish.

“When we came from Zhetel to Minsk,” he relates, “my wife, Miriam, rented an apartment with three rooms. What a miracle! The gaon of our generation, the Chazon Ish, as yet unknown, rented one of the rooms from us for two-and-a-half years. Day and night he closeted himself in his room and toiled endlessly in Torah. We never saw him except on Mondays and Thursdays when he would emerge and daven in the neighboring shul, and he and I would sit by the eastern wall.”

In Minsk, Rav Sorotzkin secured the release of numerous rabbanim and talmidei chachamim from the Russian army. The ferocious battles of World War I were exacting a terrible death toll, and the Russian authorities soon nullified the “blue cards” that had provided military exemption to refugees.

Almost all the young rabbis in Minsk suddenly found themselves at risk of becoming cannon fodder.

Rav Sorotzkin traveled constantly to St. Petersburg to intercede with the authorities. Thanks to his connections with a General Stasowitz, who was in charge of mobilization, he managed to procure “temporary deferments” for hundreds of rabbis who were not recognized by the Polish government. Miraculously, General Stasowitz forgot to send the temporary deferments to St Petersburg for processing, and they remained in force for the duration of the war.

At that time, one of the war ministers asked Rav Sorotzkin how he could have the audacity to try and defer thousands of healthy young men from army service at a time when the country was undergoing a life-and-death struggle.

Rav Sorotzkin rose and shouted, “On the contrary. How can you send rabbis to the front and at the same time grant immunity to thousands of priests? How can you allow such discrimination?” The Chazon Ish was so involved in his studies that he was almost oblivious to the problem. Rav Sorotzkin filled out the necessary forms without his knowledge and arranged his deferment. A few days later the Chazon Ish presented Rav Sorotzkin with his copy of Teshuvos Rabbi Akiva Eiger. On the opening page was inscribed a poem relating the saga of his release from army service incorporating the initials of Rav Sorotzkin’s name. Years later, in 1937, when Rav Sorotzkin visited Eretz Yisroel, he bought a half dunam of land together with the Chazon Ish, upon which they planned to build a house together.

Back in Minsk, Rav Sorotzkin founded a refugee committee not only for Minsk’s Jews, but also for the thousands of Jewish refugees who had fled there. As head of this committee, he provided the refugees with food, medicine and educational facilities.

He also coordinated a huge cadre of dedicated activists who visited 100 synagogues a day in Minsk, delivering drashos and boosting the refugees’ morale. Their base was in a building donated by a Jewish industrialist.


After the war, Rav Sorotzkin returned to Zhetel and remained there with his community during the war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, during which the Jews suffered from continuous pogroms and raids.

During this time Rav Sorotzkin demonstrated his tremendous Chachmas Hachayim, which would be so vitally important in the years to come. “After the First World War,” he relates, “the situation in Zhetel became perilous. After the Germans left, the Russians took over and then the Polish drove out the Russians. The Polish had no real control and used to just ‘visit’ now and then. But these ‘visits’ were a serious problem.

“We hid all our liquor from these soldiers and refused to sell them alcohol them under any circumstances. On the other hand we supplied the soldiers with as much food as they wanted and a ration of cigarettes. “Just before Pesach we heard that that Polish soldiers planned to pass through the town on Seder night. The Jews wanted to bolt their doors and cancel their Sedorim but, instead, I decided to bribe the soldiers with cigarettes in order to sidetrack them from plunder. We laid a huge supply of cigarettes in my home and told the local militia that free cigarettes would be distributed on Seder night.

“Sure enough, on Seder night a huge line formed in front of my house. Each soldier received his ration and I myself supervised the proceedings that continued until after midnight. Unfortunately, a Jewish butcher was murdered the next morning, but the Polish commander personally came to me to apologize.” Rav Sorotzkin also worked tirelessly to improve the food situation in Zhetel.

“At that time,” he recalls, “the ‘rav mita’am,’ that is the rav officially appointed to record births and deaths, passed away and I took over this position as well. As I was reviewing the population lists I was appalled when I found that four hundred people had recently died from intestinal typhus due to hunger. “To help lessen the influence of communist Russia, the Americans had sent large quantities of surplus food to Poland. I hurried to Slonim, where Hashem helped me find favor in the eyes of the officials and I returned to Zhetel with a large supply of wheat, sugar, oil, rice and cocoa. I opened a soup kitchen, where Zhetel’s Jewish children were able to enjoy a nutritious daily meal.

“Shortly afterward the gentile populace begged me to set up a kitchen for their children as well.

“‘Why don’t you go to your priest?’ I asked. “‘We have no trust in him,” they replied.

“In the interests of darchei shalom I set up a soup kitchen for them as well. But I kept it strictly apart so that Jewish children should not eat with gentiles.

“Later I established a co-op where food was sold at minimal cost. Four kilograms of bread were distributed to every person in the town each week and in this way the hunger problem was solved.”


In 1930 (5690), Rav Sorotzkin moved to Lutsk where he served as rav until the outbreak of World War II. In time he became the address for all major problems plaguing Poland and Ukrainian Jewry, and the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski consulted with him concerning all the problems affecting Klal Yisroel.

According to Rav Sorotzkin’s son Rav Elchonon, his father had a collection of 2,500 letters that gedolei Yisroel, including the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer, wrote him on issues of importance to Klal Yisroel. Unfortunately, nearly all of these letters were lost during the Holocaust.

“My first priority in Lutsk,” Rav Sorotzkin relates, “was to improve the city’s Talmud Torah. Most of the cheder’s enrollment came from poor homes, while the city’s wealthy residents sent their children to a school where they were taught everything except Yiddishkeit.

“To reverse this trend, I brought in outstanding melamdim from Lithuania and sent my own son there as well. Many parents followed my example. I regularly tested the talmidim and the institution reached a high level and eventually had 759 students.

“The secular teachers had leanings toward the haskala and one of them wanted to become principal. The Talmud Torah’s management, mainly Radziner chassidim, begged me to become the principal instead, because otherwise there’d be no point in the institution’s existence.

“‘If you don’t do this,’ they said, ‘We’re leaving.’

“I followed their advice but the rejected teacher complained to the authorities that I wasn’t fulfilling my duty, since principals had to deliver lessons in their schools. Thus I was forced to give a daily shiur in the Talmud Torah. I did all this to prevent the leadership from falling into the wrong hands.”

Rav Sorotzkin also worked to foil the infamous Shechita Decree, which the anti-Semitic Polish government tried to enact on the pretext that halachic shechita is cruel. Before the proposed law was enacted by the Polish parliament, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski appointed Rav Sorotzkin to head the Committee for the Defense of Shechita, which functioned on a worldwide basis.

When the law was passed, Rav Sorotzkin countered it by placing a ban on meat consumption. Three million Polish Jews suddenly stopped buying meat. When the non-Jews who handled most of the Polish cattle trade saw that business had dried up, they complained to the government and within three weeks the decree was canceled.


In addition to his many others duties, after World War I Rav Sorotzkin presided as vice chairman of a special committee founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, whose purpose was to establish orphanages for children who had lost their parents during the war. “Certain elements on the committee,” Rav Sorotzkin related, “were interested in giving the children a nonreligious education. At one of its meetings, a stormy debate was waged on this issue. When my turn came to speak I cried out, ‘Is it not enough that these children have been deprived of their earthly fathers? Do you wish to rob them of their Father in Shamayim as well?'”

On another occasion, chaos ensued at a Joint meeting when the chairman, Rav Cohen, was the special guest.

“Rav Cohen, the chairman of the Joint,” Rav Sorotzkin recalled, “came to visit Poland and a large reception was arranged in his honor. Rav Cohen knew no Yiddish so a communal leader who was a Zionist began his speech in German. Immediately, a wild uproar arose.

“‘Yiddish! Mamma lashon!’ demanded the Yiddish-loving Bundists.” “‘German!’ the Zionists shouted back.

“In the confusion one of the Bundists turned to me with a question.” “‘Don’t your children learn in Yiddish?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you also stand up for the honor of your language?’

“‘We have 613 mitzvos,’ I replied. ‘If Yiddish was also a mitzva we’d have 614. Who’d have the energy to bicker about so many things? You, however, have thrown away everything except Yiddish. So of course you are willing to fight enthusiastically for your one mitzva.”

Rav Sorotzkin was also vice chairman of the Joint committee that fostered hygiene and health in the Jewish communities. There were quarrels on this committee as well.

“At a meeting in Bialystock,” Rav Sorotzkin related, “certain maskilim claimed that the Joint should be responsible only for the dressing and washing rooms of the mikvehs. The local communities should subsidize the costs of the actual mikvehs themselves because that was a purely religious matter. This set up a stormy argument that went on for four days.

“The makeup of the committee made it clear that chareidim would lose in a deciding vote. Therefore, I suggested a secret ballot because I was convinced that many of mikveh opponents were not really antagonistic at all but merely trying to show how modern they were in their despite of ‘outmoded customs.’

“The chairman agreed and my hunch turned out to be correct. The mikveh opponents lost the vote and all they could do was seethe with rage.”


Rav Sorotzkin also fought tirelessly against a plan that threatened to disqualify half the rabbis of Poland. “Among the plethora of Polish decrees,” he recounted, “was a demand that all rabbis pass a test to prove their mastery of the Polish language. This was to even apply retroactively to people already serving as rabbis. The Chofetz Chaim moved mountains to ameliorate the decree and in the end it was agreed that rabbis need only have the ability to conduct a light conversation in Polish. But hundreds of rabbis knew hardly any Polish at all.

“Special councils were set up to test the rabbis and I was a member of the one in the town of Vallin. The rabbis I tested usually had no problem because I made sure that they knew all the questions and answers in advance.

“Before long hundreds of rabbis were choosing to be tested by me. To allay any suspicions I made a rule that to be tested they must first spend a few months in Vallin.

“The Brisker Rav knew little Polish and his opponents took advantage of this to try and destroy his legitimacy as rav of Brisk. This would have meant that he would no longer be the ‘rav mita’am’ and that he would no longer have had the authority to register births, deaths and marriages.

“I met with his opponents and they promised to cease attacking him aggressively. In Warsaw I met with the appropriate government officials and exclaimed how unseemly it was to disqualify a man whose father and grandfather had held the position of rav of Brisk for decades and who had produced many sefarim and publications. They were impressed by my arguments and waived the need for him to undergo any tests.”

Rav Sorotzkin was once informed that the Jewish inmates of the local jail were not given a chazan for Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur itself Rav Sorotzkin made his way to the authorities and presented them with a persuasive argument.

“Isn’t prison supposed to be a place where people are reformed and improved?” he said. “Why don’t you encourage these prisoners to make reckoning and improve themselves on their day of repentance?” Permission was granted to allow the prisoners to have a chazan, but then a new problem arose. There were only eight prisoners and even with the chazan they lacked a minyan. Nothing daunted Rav Sorotzkin, who set off for the jail and volunteered to be the tenth man.


Rav Sorotzkin refused to give in to the demands of the atheistic communists.

“Soon after the Russians took over the Lutsk district,” he related, “I was summoned to the offices of the NKVD Secret Police. I knew well that rabbis were the first people on their blacklist and that this invitation might be a one-way ticket to Siberia.

“I davened and said a few chapters of Tehillim and then I gathered my courage and went to their office.

“‘Sit down!’ they said. ‘We need your help. There’s no room in the local school and we want you to hand us over the study hall of the Novordak Yeshiva on the second floor of the Talmud Torah.”

“‘The yeshiva isn’t my personal property,’ I replied.

“‘Aren’t you the rav here?’ they retorted.

“‘There are fifty-five shuls in Lutsk,’ I replied. ‘Do you think they all belong to me?’ “The local Jewish communist present at the meeting said that my argument was correct.

“‘In addition,’ I said, ‘I know very well your attitude toward religion. Do you think that I would give the shul and yeshiva to you with my own hands for your needs? Impossible!’

“Despite my brazenness,” concluded Rav Sorotzkin, “they allowed me to leave unharmed.”


During World War II, the Soviet authorities threatened to arrest Rav Sorotzkin in Lutsk, so he and his family fled to Vilna. Rav Chaim Ozer instructed him to immediately attend to the needs of the yeshivos, which had taken flight during the war and set up shop in Vilna. As a result, Vilna’s Vaad Hayeshivos was founded.

When the Russians gained control of Vilna, Rav Sorotzkin made the long and arduous trek to Eretz Yisroel, which he loved with all his soul. A visiting priest once complained to Rav Sorotzkin about the terrible inroads being made in Eretz Yisroel by the secularists.

“I was expecting to see an enactment of Yechezkel’s vision of revival of the dried bones,” said the priest, “and instead I find religion being attacked!”

Anxious to alleviate this desecration of Hashem’s name Rav Sorotzkin gave him a ready answer.

“If you examine the verses carefully,” he said, “you’ll find that Yechezkel’s vision has two stages. First, Hashem joins the bones together and clothes them with flesh, and only afterwards does he tell the prophet to pray and invest the bodies with life. At present we are undergoing the first stage, but the day will come when all these people will become filled with the spirit of the Torah.”

Once in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Sorotzkin continued his work on behalf of Klal Yisroel by becoming a member of the council of Polish refugees. “I became very close to the top Polish officials and even to the Polish ambassador himself,” he recalled. “Among other things the council distributed money sent from the provisional Polish government in London and decided who was eligible to receive it.

“At that time Rav Shach, who was a maggid shiur in Yeshivas Ponevezh, was receiving this support. Then the Polish government announced that support would only be given to people with a proper Polish passport and not the provisional passports distributed during the war.

“Unfortunately, Rav Shach had no proper passport, and he went to the Chazon Ish for advice what to do.

“‘Stand in line behind the Rav of Lutsk,’ he told Rav Shach. ‘If there’s trouble he’ll figure out how to help you.’

“When my turn in the line came, ” continued Rav Sorotzkin, “the secretary asked me, ‘How many children do you have and where are they?’ “This question brought to the fore all my inner pain. My first-born was wasting away in jail, my daughter had remained in Lutsk and her fate was unknown, (later it became known that she, her husband and their children had all been killed by the Nazis, y”sh). Two other sons were in Japan, and my two youngest sons were studying in Eretz Yisroel. All my stored tears burst forth and the secretary apologized for her question. But meanwhile, in her confusion, she wasn’t overly particular with Rav Shach and he received his normal stipend.”

One of Rav Sorotzkin’s first endeavors in Eretz Yisroel was to found a Vaad Hayeshivos based on the Vilna model.

“Ever since I arrived in Eretz Yisroel,” Rav Sorotzkin recalled, “the idea of creating a Vaad Hayeshivos gnawed at me. The yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel were few and in terrible shape, the Torah centers of Europe had been destroyed, and it was necessary to rebuild the Torah world from scratch.

This was a difficult task because the existing yeshivos had their own way of doing things, but in the end almost all the yeshivos joined with us. “The Vaad’s first task was to provide a financial base for the yeshivos. I went from town to town and established councils to collect money in every place. But the country was too small and too poor to provide enough so I decided to travel to England where I was greatly aided by Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, at that time the Av Beis Din of London.

“I spent a year in England and organized support that continues until today.

Many of the places where I was warned not to waste my time gave the most support of all. For example, I was told that I would be lucky to get a few dozen pounds in a certain shul in the resort town of Bournemouth, and in the end I left with over a thousand pounds sterling.

“On one occasion I went to a fancy hotel for Rosh Hashana, unwillingly, because I much preferred old-fashioned davening, and inspired the congregation to tears with my description of the destruction of Torah in Europe and the situation in Eretz Yisroel. Afterward the hotel manager came to me and complained that his guests had come to his hotel to relax and not to weep.

“During my year in England,” concluded Rav Sorotzkin, “I collected forty-thousand pounds sterling.”

After his success in England, Rav Sorotzkin assumed another important public function. When the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah was established in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was chosen as its chairman and Rav Sorotzkin as its vice chairman. After Rav Isser Zalman’s passing, Rav Sorotzkin replaced him, and he remained in that position until his own passing. Thus, he played an important role in dealing with the political problems of his time.


When David Ben Gurion declared Israel a state in 1948, he also instituted a government school system. This system was to include three streams: one for general Zionism, one for Labor-oriented Zionism, and one for the Mizrachi.

The chareidi Torah leaders established a fourth stream, modeled after the Aguda school system. But then the government wanted to reduce the four streams to two: a secular state system and a religious-state system. Such a plan would have seriously undermined chareidi educational independence. Led by Rav Aaron Kotler and the members of the Israeli Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, a new educational organization was formed in 1953, Chinuch Atzmai.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin was chosen to head it.

At that time the minister of education turned to Rav Sorotzkin with a complaint. “Why do you have to split off the government network?” he asked.

“Why should it bother you if we supervise your curriculum?”

“Would you ever expect a person like me to supervise your secularist schools?” retorted Rav Sorotzkin. “Can a person supervise something that he virulently opposes?”

Chinuch Atzmai became Rav Sorotzkin’s lifework, and he dedicated himself to it with every once of his strength. The Chinuch Atzmai talmud Torahs and the Bais Yaakov schools that today dot the country from north to south and east to west, are the result of his valiant efforts. Today, approximately 77,000 students learn in its kindergartens and elementary schools. Rav Sorotzkin was supported and assisted in these efforts by many gedolim including Rav Aaron Kotler, and, after Rav Aaron’s passing, by Rav Moshe Feinstein.

Rav Sorotzkin’s son Rav Yoel relates: “When I was still a youngster, I heard my father speaking on the telephone with Rav Moshe Feinstein a month before he fell ill with a disease from which he never recovered. With tears in his eyes, he told Rav Moshe about the critical financial situation of Chinuch Atzmai and concluded: ‘If chas ve’shalom it is decreed that the Chinuch Atzmai cease to function I am willing to redeem it with my life.’ At that moment all of the lights in the neighborhood blacked out and the conversation continued by candlelight.”


A frum politician once spoke with a secularist about Rav Sorotzkin. The secularist said, “If we had a communal figure like Rav Sorotzkin, he would certainly be the prime minister.”

The chareidi replied: “He’s already the prime minister. He’s the head of the Chinuch Atzmai, the head of the Vaad Hayeshivos and the head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. The entire chareidi world is subservient to these institutions. However, we choose our leaders not by elections but by dint of greatness in Torah and high spiritual stature. That’s what it means to be a rav in Klal Yisroel.”

Despite his wide-ranging communal efforts, Rav Sorotzkin himself subsisted on a bare minimum.

His grandson, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, director of Lev L’achim, relates, “Rav Sorotzkin would travel far and wide on his communal tasks by bus and refuse to use a car or a cab. ‘With the extra money another child could be saved for Torah and mitzvos,’ he would say.

“Rav Sorotzkin used to pour his heart into his work,” continues his grandson. “Letters are still extant where tear drops are visible that fell as he was writing.

“When his wife passed away, I remember how we stood outside Sha’arei Tzedek hospital waiting for the levaya to begin. But my grandfather wasn’t ready because he was deep in conversation with the directors of Chinuch Atzmai about an urgent problem that could not be delayed.”

Rav Sorotzkin’s prayers, too, were legendary. “Who knows,” said the Brisker Rav, “if my prayers reach the level of Rav Sorotzkin’s Tehillim?” Rav Zalman Sorotzkin was niftar on 9 Tammuz, 5726 (1966). His legacy lives on in the many institutions he founded, and in his writings, Oznayim le’Torah and Moznayim le’Torah.

Every Bais Yaakov student who observes tznius and upholds the precept of “kol kevuda bas melech penima,” keeps his legacy alive. And every yeshiva student who dedicates himself to full-time Torah study keeps his legacy alive. And every Jew who displays genuine emunas chachamim, heeding the directives of gedolei Yisroel, keeps his legacy alive.

May his memory be a blessing.

{By D. Sofer/This article originally appeared in the pages of Yated Ne’eman}

{Matzav.com Newscenter}



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here