Visitors to the tomb of Ḥatam Sofer, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1974. Photograph by Jacob Roth. (YIVO)

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Sofer, Mosheh

(Schreiber; 1762–1839), rabbi and preeminent halakhic authority. Mosheh Sofer, who came to be known as Ḥatam Sofer, was born into a modest family in Frankfurt am Main. Early on, the gifted boy was taken under the wing of Pinḥas Horowitz (1730–1805), the rabbi of the community, head of its prestigious yeshiva, and one of the outstanding Talmudic scholars of his generation. He also studied several years at the yeshiva of Tevele Scheuer of Mainz. Even more significantly, Sofer became deeply attached to Natan Adler (1741–1800), a charismatic figure who gathered about him a pious circle of devoted followers. The unusual esoteric practices of this group drew the ire of the community, and Adler was threatened with a ban in 1779. It is ironic and revealing that the future conservative ideologue spent his formative years as a disciple of such an unconventional master.

When Adler was invited to take up a rabbinical post in the Moravian community of Boskowitz (Boskovice) in 1782, the 20-year-old Mosheh intended to see him off, but on an impulse decided to accompany him. Adler returned to Frankfurt in 1785, but Sofer remained in Moravia. Although he was never to return to Frankfurt, he retained a deep attachment to his native city, always signing his name Mosheh Sofer of Frankfurt am Main.

Sofer left Germany at a particularly momentous period. The controversy around the maskil Naftali Herts Wessely’s educational program had erupted earlier that year, and in the summer of 1782, Horowitz had preached a sermon condemning Wessely’s proposals and Moses Mendelssohn’s Bible translation and commentary, the Bi’ur. The confrontation proved to be a seminal moment for Sofer, decisively shaping his enduring animus toward Mendelssohn and the Haskalah. Even toward the very end of his life, he was to recall vividly his teacher’s prophetic warning on that occasion about the dangers posed by the movement.

Sofer moved to nearby Prossnitz (Prostějov), the second largest community in Moravia, which had been a major breeding ground of Sabbatianism throughout the eighteenth century and was soon to become the center of Haskalah and religious reform in Moravia. He married Sarah Yerwitz, a widow several years his senior, and devoted himself to study, expanding his already considerable mastery of rabbinic literature. Conforming to prevailing ideals of the time, however, Sofer initially eschewed the rabbinate, and was loath to make Torah study a source of livelihood. But in almost stereotypical fashion, financial straits compelled him, as it had legions of impoverished scholars before him, to seek out—reluctantly—a rabbinical post. His first position, in 1794, was in the small community of Dressnitz, but in 1798 he was elected rabbi of Mattersdorf, one of the prestigious seven communities of Burgenland located on the estates of the Esterházy princes in Hungary. His reputation grew, and he received offers from ever larger and more important communities, including Prossnitz and Neustadt an der Waag. But he left Mattersdorf only in 1806, when Pressburg (Pozsony, Bratislava), which had been seeking a suitable rabbi for several years, chose him by lot from a short list of candidates. He served there as rabbi for more than 33 years.

Students at the yeshiva established by Mosheh Sofer in 1806, Bratislava, 1907. Many became well-known religious leaders later in life. (YIVO)

In this prestigious Hungarian community, the seat of the national Diet and the kingdom’s second capital, Sofer found a community of several thousand, with considerable resources. Most important was the capacity of the community to sustain a sizable yeshiva. Sofer was proud that almost no day of his adult life had gone by without him teaching; he now welcomed the opportunity that Pressburg afforded to considerably broaden his sphere of educational activities. At a time when the great yeshivas of Central Europe were fast disappearing and the sole such institution in Eastern Europe was the recently founded yeshiva of Volozhin, the Pressburg yeshiva under Ḥatam Sofer attracted students from all over Europe, eventually growing to a student body that numbered 400 at its peak. It was unprecedented in size, the largest yeshiva since the days of Babylonia.

Sofer’s method of teaching for the most part avoided pilpul. In two different lecture formats held during the week, he sought to impart both broad erudition (shi‘ur pashut, the “simple lecture”) and thematic analysis along the lines of key sugyot (shi‘ur ‘iyun, the “analytical lecture”). This set the pattern of yeshiva study in Hungary in contrast to that of Lithuania. While study was clearly centered on theoretical discussions of the Talmud, the Pressburg yeshiva also placed emphasis on arriving at practical application of the relevant halakhah. Codes were studied in the afternoons during the first part of the week.

Toward the end of the week, Sofer would lecture on the relevant Torah portion with the commentaries of Rashi and, notably, Naḥmanides, the scholar with whom he most identified. In addition, he lectured regularly on ethics—especially on the classic work of Baḥya ibn Pakuda’, thereby earning the sobriquet “Mister Duties of the Heart” for not even glossing over the controversial opening chapters of the work, as was customary. His charismatic personality and great intellectual reputation attracted a lasting, devoted following of thousands of alumni, laymen and rabbis. Until the post–World War II era, no other head of a yeshiva had as many disciples who went on to serve in the rabbinate—more than 100 in Hungary alone. These students in turn instilled in their communities and yeshivas their master’s legacy of learning, stringent observance, and unquestioned commitment to tradition.

Sofer’s reputation as a halakhic decisor or posek also grew over time. Initially, in the pre-Pressburg period, he received queries from the immediate vicinity of western Hungary and Moravia; after he arrived in Pressburg, his authority expanded in ever-growing circles. By the 1830s, he had attained the status of the foremost halakhic authority of his generation, to whom great scholars turned from the world over. But it was only between 1841 and 1864, when his roughly 1,200 responsa were first published posthumously in six volumes as Responsa Ḥatam Sofer, that the full force and magnitude of his legal opus, with its conservative and at times unconventional views, became available to a broader public. The work quickly attained canonical status, and along with four more volumes published in the twentieth century (adding almost 300 responsa), it continues to influence halakhic decisions to this day.

Early on, Sofer displayed remarkable self-confidence in his ability to arrive at a just and true ruling. He claimed to have reversed himself with respect to a halakhic ruling only twice during his lifetime—and the minor, almost trivial nature of these admitted mistakes was meant to cement his reputation for infallibility. In fact, his views on certain recurring halakhic issues often changed over time. Imbued with a clear sense of charismatic election, he relied on his initial intuition in arriving at a ruling and then swiftly dashed off an impressively erudite and well-formulated legal rationale.

Sofer’s reputation for stringency was well earned in light of his best-known responsa, which were aimed at religious reformers. He first caught the public eye with the publication of three responsa he contributed to Eleh divre ha-berit (1819), a collection critical of the Hamburg Temple reforms that had introduced into Sabbath services, among other things, an organ and an emended German-language prayer book. Sensing that determining these issues on purely halakhic grounds would not address what was really at stake, Sofer put forth a fundamental defense of an integral, unchanging, and unassailable tradition—a corpus of received collective wisdom that had been distilled and passed on from generation to generation. If, because of state law, the innovators could no longer be banned, they could nevertheless, he argued, be segregated from the faithful. Later in the century, when the Orthodox found themselves in the minority, this policy was transformed into one of self-segregation. It was Sofer’s penetrating understanding of the threat to tradition posed by reformers, and his formulation of a traditionalist paradigm that would guide the words and actions of generations of his own followers, that earned him the appellation “the father of Orthodox Judaism.”

Sofer coined several pithy maxims. His motto was “He-ḥadash asur min ha-Torah!” (Innovation is forbidden as a biblical prohibition!). Recognizing that the changes instituted by Reform were grounded in the belief that one could distinguish between different layers of tradition—between an essential kernel and disposable chaff—Sofer insisted on the integrity of the tradition as a whole, and he defended even the most minute customs. Yet in the course of defending tradition, he himself introduced several innovations. In contrast to Reform, he sought to collapse halakhicly accepted distinctions between biblical and rabbinical commandments, and between laws and customs. He redefined the nature of some customs—assigning the Ashkenazic prohibition of eating kitniyot (a category of foods including rice, peas, and legumes) on Passover the novel status of a binding pledge that, once undertaken by a community, could not be undone.

Sofer sought to elevate the Shulḥan ‘arukh to the status of an undisputed code, yet he understood that a traditionalist position often demanded a more sophisticated response. “Take care, my children!” he warned. “It is a difficult skill to know the four parts of the Shulḥan ‘arukh, but they can be mastered. But in order to know the fifth Shulḥan ‘arukh [there are, in fact, only four]—to rule and teach in accordance with the state of the generation and the demands of the time and place, . . . to rule leniently or stringently—that requires great assistance from heaven!” Yet when he felt that tradition was not under blatant challenge, Sofer could be exceptionally flexible. A number of lenient rulings—such as permitting shaving (1800) and metsitsah (sucking the first drop of blood, during circumcision), with an instrument (1837)—have come to plague skeptical latter-day zealots.

What distinguished Ḥatam Sofer from other eminent rabbinic authorities of his generation was his exceptionally harsh and lasting opposition to Wessely and Mendelssohn at a time when most of his colleagues had come to terms with the early, moderate Haskalah. “Be-sifre Ramad, al tishleḥu yad!” (Do not lay a hand on the books of Ramad [the acronym for Mendelssohn]!), he rhymed in his last will and testament. He meant, of course, the Bi’ur, Mendelssohn’s biblical commentary. For many of Sofer’s faithful followers in the community and even some of his closest disciples, this was an embarrassing, eccentric demand. No wonder that rumors soon spread that the will actually read sifre ḥemed, fiction, rather than sifre Ramad. (Indeed, as can be seen in the recently published facsimile of the will, a line was clearly added by another hand in a clumsy attempt to transform the letter resh of Ramad into a ḥet.)

In studied opposition to Haskalah ideology, Sofer rehabilitated Yiddish precisely because he felt it was a corrupt language, and insisted that religious studies precede secular studies precisely because it was the counterintuitive thing to do. He predicted that assimilation would only heighten, not alleviate, hostility to Jews and viewed emancipation askance, fearing an attenuation of Jewish feelings of alienation in the Diaspora, where since the Second Temple “we are as prisoners of war.” And while he fostered strong ties with the incipient Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, in particular as a conduit of funds from western Hungary, he did not encourage aliyah for scholars if conditions for study were more favorable in the Diaspora.

In contrast to his relentless hostility to the Haskalah, by the 1830s Sofer recognized the fait accompli of linguistic acculturation—and consequently he wrote approbations to German translations of Rashi’s commentary and, more surprisingly, of the Talmud (he later recanted), and made concessions to secular education. When Sofer first arrived in Pressburg, he did not raise any objections to the remnant of a Josephinian-style Normalschule, teaching elementary reading, writing, and arithmetic. But beginning in 1811, he clashed with a maskilic opposition within the community that repeatedly sought to establish a private school, the so-called Primärschule, with a dual, secular and (Haskalah-oriented) religious, curriculum—and finally succeeded, on Passover in 1820. Moreover, the very day of the school’s inauguration, the man who had been chiefly instrumental in its founding, Wolf Breisach, was reelected head of the community (and would be returned to office over the next six years until his sudden death). Breisach clashed with Ḥatam Sofer and tried to convince the authorities to shut down the Pressburg yeshiva.

Yet Sofer was not entirely averse to educational initiatives. In early 1820, he endorsed an institution to promote “productivization” and encouraged Pressburg Jews to embrace useful trades and agriculture. A decade later, when a more favorable kehilah administration had gained power, Ḥatam Sofer consented to supervise a new community-run school. Significantly, it no longer limited its curriculum to elementary secular studies of the old Normalschule, but now combined them with the religious curriculum of the Talmud Torah. While admittedly the religious orientation was more “Orthodox” than that of the Primärschule, the combined dual curriculum came suspiciously close to that envisaged by the early maskilim.

As rabbi of the community, Ḥatam Sofer established new patterns of interaction with the community that influenced the Hungarian rabbinate at large, instilling it with a militant ethos and considerably strengthening a relatively weak institution, especially vis-à-vis the lay leadership. He preached far more often than was customary, at least 10 times a year (four volumes of his sermons were published only in the twentieth century), and promoted an authoritarian style of leadership that was not always well received. The charismatic style of relationship between him and his disciples, a legacy of Adler, could also be a source of tension between town and gown. Nevertheless, in time the community came to appreciate the presence of the yeshiva and the growing fame of its rabbi.

Sofer’s status was enhanced by his second marriage, in his fifties, to the young widowed daughter of Akiva Eger. Though his first marriage had been childless, Sarah Eger bore him 10 children. Toward the end of his life, Sofer expressed the guarded wish that his eldest son, then in his early twenties, fill a post in the yeshiva. During Sofer’s emotion-laden funeral, his supporters succeeded in having the son elected by acclamation at the graveside. Although this pattern was not unprecedented, it did establish the practice of rabbinical inheritance that would increasingly transform the Hungarian rabbinate into a nearly closed caste.

It was the legacy of Ḥatam Sofer more than that of any other Jew, Orthodox or otherwise, that determined the course of Hungarian Jewish history. He placed an indelible stamp on the Jews of Hungary in a manner rivaled only by the impact of Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, on Lithuanian Jewry.

Suggested Reading

Ḥatam Sofer was a prolific writer. He composed poetry, wrote a diary of the Napoleonic siege of Pressburg, left behind an important fraction of an extensive correspondence, besides his sermons, responsa, and novellae. Yitsḥak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Hungaryah (Jerusalem, 1996/97), pp. 282–310, provides an excellent bibliographic guide. For his biography, see Jacob Katz, “Towards a Biography of the Hatam Sofer,” in Divine Law in Human Hands: Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility (Jerusalem, 1998). See also Joseph Ben-David, “The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Society in Hungary in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Jewish History (Dordrecht) 11.1 (1997): 57–97; Ma‘oz Kahana, “Yetsivut ve-shinui be-she’elot ve-teshuvot ha-Ḥatam Sofer” (M.A. thesis, Hebrew University, 2004); Moshe Samet, He-Ḥadash asur min ha-Torah (Jerusalem, 2005); Michael K. Silber, “Shorashe ha-pilug be-yahadut Hungaryah” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1985), chap. 2.