Moses Sofer

Hungarian rabbi who fought against the influence of Reform.

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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

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