Moses Sofer

Hungarian rabbi who fought against the influence of Reform.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Moses Sofer was the foremost Hungarian Rabbi, Halakhic authority, and champion of Orthodoxy (1762-1839), known, after the title of his Responsa collection, as Hatam Sofer ("Seal of the Scribe"). Sofer was born in Frankfurt where he studied under Rabbi Phineas Horowitz, the Rabbi of the town, and Rabbi Nathan Adler, a Talmudist and Kabbalist whose esoteric leanings were not to the taste of the staid Frankfurt community, which he was forced to leave, taking his disciple, Sofer, with him. After occupying Rabbinic positions in Dresnitz and Mattersdof, Sofer was appointed Rabbi of Pressburg (Bratislava) where he served until his death. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Abraham Samuel Benjamin Wolf (1815- 71), known as the Ketav Sofer ("Writing of the Scribe"), who, in turn, was succeeded by his son, Simhah Bunen (1842-1906), known as the Shevet Sofer ("Pen of the Scribe").

The Pressburg Yeshivah

It is a curious fact that each of the three Sofers served as the Rabbi of Pressburg for thirty-three years and both the last two were appointed at the age of 29. Simhah Bunen’s son, Akiba Sofer (1878-1959), known as the Daat Sofer ("Opinion of Scribe"), succeeded his father in the Rabbinate of Pressburg but in 1940 he settled in Jerusalem and established there the "Pressburg" Yeshivah. The original Pressburg Yeshivah was founded by the Hatam Sofer, who, like his successors, was Dean of the Yeshivah as well as Rabbi of the town. This combination of the two roles, Rabbi and Rosh Yeshivah, in one person was traditional but was not generally followed in the great Lithuanian Yeshivot of the nineteenth century, where the post of Rosh Yeshivah was independent of the Rabbinate of the town. This is the main reason why in the Pressburg Yeshivah and its many offshoots in Hungary the emphasis was on practical law, while in the Lithuanian Yeshivot it was on pure theory and keen analysis of legal concepts. Out of the Pressburg Yeshivah and those influenced by it there issued generations of Orthodox Rabbis in the strict Hungarian mould.

Sofer saw danger to traditional Judaism in the Haskalah movement and he had a largely negative attitude towards Moses Mendelssohn and his followers. Yet it is a mistake to see him as obscurantist in his attitude. It has to be appreciated that the Jewish communities in central Europe were attracted to the Reform movement, then growing in influence, in nearby Germany. In Pressburg itself there were strong Reformist tendencies which Sofer successfully overcame in his belief that Reform threatened the very foundations of Judaism. When the Hamburg Reform Temple was established, the Hamburg Rabbinate issued, in 1818, the document Eleh Divre Ha-Berit ("These are the

Words of the Covenant"), attacking Reform innovations. Sofer and his father-in-law, the Talmudist, Rabbi Akiba Eger, contributed to this protest well-reasoned essays in defense of total adherence to traditional forms.

Forbidding Innovation

Sofer’s application of a Talmudic ruling became the slogan of Hungarian Orthodoxy. The Talmud, discussing the law of Hadash ("New"), the corn harvested before the Omer (Leviticus 23: 14), rules that "Hadash is forbidden by the Torah," meaning, it is a biblical, not only a Rabbinic, law that the prohibition of Hadash stands even after the destruction of the Temple and, even outside the land of Israel. Sofer’s pun on this ruling is that anything new (hadash), any innovation in Jewish life, is forbidden by the Torah. It is ironic that this slogan itself, in the way it is understood in the Sofer-Hungarian school, is an innovation. Orthodox Rabbis, including Sofer himself, have always been ready to take into account in their decisions new conditions requiring fresh legislation. Sofer held, for instance, that improved communications made it easier for a wife whose husband was lost at sea to be released from her married status on the grounds that it can nowadays be assumed that if he were alive he would have got in touch with her, even though it was not so assumed in Talmudic times. Also Sofer, more than any other authority of his day, placed the Rabbinate on a proper professional footing, giving details of Rabbinic contracts and saying that these should be drawn up to be as binding as any other business contract, even though the Talmud frowns on a scholar receiving any payment for his services. Sofer writes (Responsa, Yoreh Deah, no, 230): "Nowadays, where a Rabbi is appointed and he moves residence to settle in the town and they fix his salary, just like any other employee, and included in his stipend are the fees for officiating a weddings and divorces and so forth, he does not act in anyway unlawfully by receiving his salary."

A Separatist Legacy

Sofer’s strong opposition to the Reform movement was continued by his son and grandson and their disciples. Every practice that seemed to have been influenced by Reform or by Christian practices was declared taboo, for instance, to have the bimah at the end of the synagogue near the Ark, or to have weddings in the synagogue with an address by the preacher to bride and bridegroom, or for the Rabbi and Cantor to wear canonicals. To this day Hungarian Orthodoxy, influenced by the Sofer school, is separatist in tendency, though, few, nowadays, would go so far as Sofer’s foremost disciple, Moses Schick (1807-59), Rabbi of Huszt, who asked his Rabbinic colleagues to declare openly that if the imposition of a herem were permitted in Hungarian law, it would be essential to impose the ban on the Reformers. In any event, declares Schick, we must make it clear that the Reformers are not Jews (sic); that it is forbidden to intermarry with them; and that it is forbidden to pray in their Temples. This separatist attitude was adopted by Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfurt.

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