Rav Shlomo Hoffman was born in Czechoslovakia, on 3 Tammuz 5682 (1922), and grew up in the city of Salish. His father, Rav Tzvi Yosef, was a chassid of the Spinka Rebbe, author of Chakal Yitzchak; the Rebbe’s radiance lit up Rav Shlomo’s childhood. The local cheder was not on a high enough level, so Rav Tzvi Yosef filled in the gaps by hiring private tutors to learn with his son at every free moment.
In 5698 (1938), at the age of 16, he became a student of Yeshivas Chevron, where he studied for the next eight years. He endeared himself to his rabbeim from the very beginning. The Mashgiach Rav Meir Chadash said that he was the best “listener” of the Yeshiva, and that he knew how to listen attentively to divrei Torah.
He also had a close connection with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, who gave him the foundations of Torah and yiras Shamayim. Rav Yechezkel opened before him a path of optimism in teshuvah.
Over the years, Rav Shlomo developed the principles they taught him, and used them to uplift broken spirits. Rav Yechezkel’s admiration for Rav Shlomo led him to eventually invite Rav Shlomo to serve as Mashgiach of Chevron, an offer that Rav Shlomo refused.
However, the person who most influenced Rav Shlomo’s life was Rav Isaac Sher, who had been Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka in Lithuania. Rav Isaac was in Switzerland when World War II broke out. Since he could not return to Lithuania, he moved to Eretz Yisrael and settled in Yerushalayim, next to Chevron Yeshiva.
Rav Isaac dedicated himself to Rav Shlomo’s chinuch with all his heart. Rav Isaac maintained that the only reason Hashem rescued him from the Holocaust was because he had a unique ability to educate the next generation of bachurim. With this in mind, he dedicated all his energies towards the mission for which he was kept alive.
Rav Isaac taught Rav Shlomo how the human mind operates. He taught him what being human is all about: What are our kochos ha’nefesh and their characteristics? What are our inclinations, how do they work, and how do they influence us? How can a person come to know himself? How can he soften, conquer, and rectify his yetzer? What should be his attitude toward sin and its correction? What is teshuvah and what qualifies a person as being “on the path of teshuvah”?
Rav Isaac taught him that any engagement in practical mussar begins with self-awareness. A person must understand himself and be acquainted with his urges. He shared with Rav Shlomo his own personal experiences of self-awareness and self-struggle, and thus taught Rav Shlomo to question himself and his motivations.
Rav Isaac taught him and gave him exercises to reach peace of mind and happiness, under the maxim that a person who serves Hashem should always be happy, and not sad or scared. Rav Isaac taught him to analyze and encompass a topic from all vantage points. He taught that a person should be able to weigh all sides of an issue, and come to intelligent decisions on his own. He demanded of Rav Shlomo a high degree of empathy for the feelings of others, and true consideration for their wishes.
In his old age, Rav Shlomo would say that not a single day passed in which he did not see Rav Isaac’s face before him. Rav Isaac’s investment in Rav Shlomo was not just in a single person. It was an investment in the generations of educators that Rav Shlomo trained, using the lessons he learned from Rav Isaac. He taught educators how to raise talmidim who were healthy in mind and spirit, happy in Torah study, yiras Shamayim, and mussar, refined in their character traits, capable of withstanding life’s struggles, and able to choose the right direction.
In his years in yeshiva, Rav Shlomo made lifelong friendships with peers who would eventually become the Torah leaders of their generation. His closest friends among them were Rav Gedaliah Eiseman (Mashgiach of Yeshivas Kol Torah) and Rav Dov Schwartzman (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud). Rav Shlomo would rely on Rav Dov in all matters of Torah and halachah, and Rav Dov would rely on Rav Shlomo in all matters of life wisdom and behavior, deeming Rav Shlomo as trustworthy in these matters.
In 1950, he was discharged from the army, and his main challenge became earning a livelihood for his family. The Welfare Ministry was then in the process of establishing rehabilitation services for convicts and was enlisting manpower. Rav Shlomo was found qualified to be an evaluation officer and was hired. Today, such a position requires a degree in social work and a background in psychotherapy. In those times, however, the demand for rehabilitation services was so urgent that they hired candidates whose personalities fit the task, and provided the necessary training on the job.
This state-run service is charged with the task of improving society through the rehabilitation of convicts. It provides psychological diagnosis, supervision, treatment, and rehabilitation services to convicted criminals. An evaluation officer meets with convicts and examines their behavior, together with their background and the causes that led them into crime. He must then search for ways to bring the convicts out of the cycle of crime and return them to normative behavior and gainful employment. As a therapist, he provides emotional support and guidance on the path toward rehabilitation. This demands the ability to understand the human spirit, and examine the personality, emotions, and reactions of the convict in his care. He must assess the client’s ability to make a connection with a therapist and benefit from the therapist’s influence. He must also make recommendations before the court regarding the terms of punishment necessary to rehabilitate his client. He is regularly required to appear before the court in order to support his professional recommendation, and often to argue with the prosecuting attorney for the benefit of his client.
Rav Shlomo immediately stood out as an excellent therapist. Over the years, he was promoted to a management position. He made use of the tools of Torah and mussar that he had learned from Rav Isaac and his other mentors. The Torah of mussar deals with educating man to choose what is correct and redirecting him to the straight path, analyzing the phenomenon of choosing sin and understanding the motives for such choice, and the ways of prevention and self-correction. In practice, this was precisely the role that Rav Shlomo served as an evaluation officer.
Rav Shlomo believed in the potential for teshuvah in everyone. He believed in the goodness within the criminals, and in their ability to correct their mistakes. He looked at them lovingly, felt their pain, and understood their conflicts. They sensed how much he cared about them, and a relationship of trust was formed. In turn, they learned to believe in themselves too, and set out for a better path. When cases were brought before the court, Rav Shlomo was able to impart to the judge his firm belief in the ability of man to improve, such that the court was usually inclined to accept his recommendations.
As part of his career in the prison system, Rav Shlomo learned about behavioral psychology, diagnosis, and treatment. He studied these subjects in depth, and investigated their correlation to the wisdom of the Torah. He discovered that the most significant insights of modern psychology were already revealed by Chazal thousands of years ago. Rav Yechezkel Sarna would help him judge the validity of concepts in psychology from a Torah viewpoint, searching for sources from Chazal and rejecting concepts that had no source.
Rav Shlomo found that the main Torah sources for understanding mental health were the Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei, and the letters of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Throughout his life, Rav Shlomo studied deeply and drew forth from the Torah the wisdom of mental health and its practical application. He was a practical person, and excelled at taking theoretical ideas and transforming them into helpful tools. He translated the words of Chazal into the language of action, thus creating tools for education and therapy.
The knowledge and experience that Rav Shlomo gathered in understanding and treating the motives behind crime brought him to the attention of some of the most prominent members of his field. He was invited to speak before large audiences, before whom he discussed his professional knowledge, woven together with sources from Chazal. He showed how the fundamental understanding of the human spirit is revealed through the Torah. When envious colleagues asked him the secret of his success, he explained: “You try to teach new information to your clients. I teach them how to make use of the large store of knowledge that they already have.” His role was to take the teachings of the Torah giants who nurtured him, and turn them into practical tools of education and psychotherapy.
For the most part, the clients with whom he worked were far from Torah observance. Still, he was widely respected among them as an ethical, spiritual person who loved others and had valuable advice to offer. He was well loved and well admired.
The many years that Rav Shlomo spent rehabilitating convicts taught him much about the inner workings of a person’s mind. He learned about the nature of man, his impulses, the depths to which man can fall, and the ever-present hope for improvement. The rehabilitation services were like a laboratory of the human spirit. There, his clients’ hearts were opened before him. He learned about the influences that shaped them from a young age, and how they fell deeper and deeper into crime. He learned about the mistakes made by their parents and teachers, and by society as a whole. He learned about the influences that cause a person to seek to improve himself — what stimulates the inner virtues of man, and what retards them. All known methods of therapy and evaluation were tested there, and he could see which of them proved beneficial and which did not.
Rehabilitation of criminals can be considered a field of education. Volumes upon volumes of books could have been written from the lessons that were learned there each day. Rav Shlomo learned, tested ideas, reached conclusions, developed new insights, corrected them, and thus developed a new genre of understanding the human spirit.
In addition to the long hours he spent earning a livelihood, Rav Shlomo continued to work with the refugee children who had escaped the Holocaust, and with the Sefardic children who came from Arab countries. He worked with an organization called Chever HaP’eylim, which would eventually become known as Yad L’Achim.
Eventually, he quit his job in the prison system and was appointed by Yad L’Achim and Chinuch Atzma’i as the supervisor of the school system for the immigrant settlements. Many of their meetings in those years were held in Rav Shlomo’s home until the late hours of the night.
Since Yad L’Achim was run under the guidance of Gedolei Yisrael, Rav Shlomo had many opportunities to consult the Gedolim of his times. He earned their admiration and formed a close connection with many Gedolim, including the Chazon Ish (Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz), the Brisker Rav (Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik), the Ponevezher Rav (Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman), Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. He became their trusted confidant, and they shared with him many discreet issues of personal and public guidance.
Gedolei Yisrael came to trust his judgment both in regard to diagnosing and treating individuals and their problems, and in public matters regarding the community. They found him a worthy and capable emissary on missions that required the utmost tact and sensitivity. Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshivos came to consult him both in personal matters, and for guidance regarding their public responsibilities.
When the Brisker Rav was asked why he showed Rav Shlomo so much warmth and respect, he explained, “Rav Shlomo comes to ask and to do what I tell him, unlike others who just come with hopes to hear what they want to hear, and ignore the rest.” One time, he came together with Rav Shlomo Noach Krauss to seek the advice of the Brisker Rav, who told them, “Shlomo and Shlomo, do as your wisdom dictates” — an allusion to the wisdom of Shlomo HaMelech.
His relationship with Rav Shach began when he was still a bachur, having been introduced by Rav Gedaliah Eiseman, who knew Rav Shach from Kletzk. Their connection was strengthened by years of consultation on behalf of Yad L’Achim. Rav Shach recognized his abilities in chinuch and therapy, and his profound understanding of mental health. Rav Shach consulted him much in those areas, and eventually started sending him people in need of therapy. Rav Shlomo’s success in treating them increased the flow of people to his door.
Over the years, Rav Shach tried many times to convince Rav Shlomo to charge for his therapy sessions. Despite the financial challenges of raising and marrying off his children, Rav Shlomo refused to accept payment.
Rav Shach relied on Rav Shlomo’s diagnoses of mental health, even regarding serious halachic matters. Once, when there was doubt as to the level of a husband’s sanity, Rav Shach arranged a get based on Rav Shlomo’s assertion that the husband was indeed sane. Rav Shach would send him educators in search of advice and guidance.
At the age of sixty, Rav Shlomo retired and devoted himself entirely to Torah study. At the request of his childhood friend Rav Dov Schwartzman, he joined the kollel of Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud.
The bnei Torah around him took note of the wellspring of wisdom in their midst, and began coming to him for advice and conversation. The word spread that a treasure of wisdom and experience had appeared at their doorstep, and people began to come to him for advice on chinuch and mental health. The number of cases sent to him by Rav Shach and others continued to grow. The several therapy sessions he held each day grew into thousands over the years, all of which he provided for free.
Educators, Roshei Yeshiva, and Mashgichim came to seek his guidance. He set times to meet with them, to speak and to study, individually and in groups. He gave shiurim in his home on the Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei, and the letters of Rav Yisrael Salanter, focusing on the practical applications of these works. The members of the shiur would raise questions regarding education and matters of the nefesh concerning their talmidim and themselves. Rav Shlomo would help them dissect their questions, and shed light on the straight path towards happiness and mental health in avodas Hashem. It could well be said that his home turned into a Beis Midrash for the teachings of the Rambam, Vilna Gaon, and Rav Yisrael Salanter.
He would repeatedly stress that every true discovery of psychology had already been revealed by Chazal. There is indeed wisdom among the nations, but the foundations can all be found in the holy Torah. He taught his students to contemplate the words of Chazal in depth, and discover therein the wisdom of how the human mind works. They came to realize that developing and imparting this understanding was the mission of his life. He would always say, “Whatever Hoffman says is not Hoffman’s own. It is from the Rambam, Vilna Gaon, and Rav Yisrael.”
Rav Shlomo was a treasure-house of stories from Gedolei Yisrael. He had a story about Gedolim to illustrate every point he said. In his sphere, the Gedolim of previous generations continued to live and teach us, as if the yeridas hadoros had never occurred.
The last thirty years of his life were dedicated to Torah, avodas Hashem, and giving guidance to anyone who sought his advice. He imparted the Torah’s outlook on chinuch, aveiros, and teshuvah. He taught about the proper relationship between parents and children, between educators and students, and between husband and wife. He offered practical tools for raising a generation to serve Hashem with joy.
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Back In Print!
Secrets of the Soul!
This extraordinary, must-read sefer offers an astounding collection of shiurim and one-on-one conversations with Rabbi Hoffman – with an emphasis on Chinuch and developing practical tools to maximize one’s Kochos HaNefesh.
This uplifting, heartfelt, clearly written sefer is essential reading for all parents, educators, scholar, layman, and b’nai Torah of all ages.
First volume of upcoming series, sold over 20,000 in Hebrew!