SOFER, MOSHEH (1762–1839), a Jewish religious leader, was known as the Ḥatam Sofer (Ḥasam Soyfer in Ashkenazic pronunciation) and as Moses Schreiber in governmental documents. Born in Frankfurt, Mosheh Sofer studied there under the chief rabbi, Pinḥas Horovitz, and under Natan Adler, a qabbalist known for his strict and unusual ritual practices. When in 1782 Adler became the rabbi of Boskowitz, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), Sofer left with him. He married in Prossnitz, Moravia, in 1787 and later served as rabbi of Dresnitz, Moravia (1794–1798), and of Mattersdorf, Hungary (1798–1806). From 1806 until his death he was the chief rabbi of Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia), then one of the chief cities of Hungary, where he established a large and influential yeshivah (Talmudic academy). After the death of his first wife he married the daughter of ʿAqivaʾ Eger, one of the leading Talmudists of the age. His descendants (all by his second marriage) include a number of important Talmudic scholars and Orthodox leaders.
The Ḥatam Sofer is generally viewed as the intellectual leader of the "Old Orthodox" opposition to Reform Judaism. One of the last great Talmudic scholars educated in Germany, he differed from later German Orthodoxy in that he opposed not only all ritual and liturgical innovations but also any changes in traditional education and style of life. Coining the slogan "The Torah forbids what is new," he vehemently fought the Mendelssohnian Enlightenment (Haskalah), the use of German in sermons, and even the slightest innovation in custom. He wished to retain Jewish national and cultural separateness and to strengthen the moral and coercive powers of the rabbinate and Jewish community to prevent innovation. He viewed the legal emancipation of the Jews as a poor substitute for messianic redemption and a return to Zion.
A charismatic and energetic leader, the Ḥatam Sofer aroused both intense admiration and violent opposition. His influence in western Hungary on Orthodoxy, especially non-Hasidic Orthodoxy, remained intense into the twentieth century; his example helped give Hungarian Orthodoxy its zealous, uncompromising imprint. Outside the Hungarian cultural area, his influence was felt mainly in the realm of traditional Talmudic and halakhic (religious-legal) scholarship. Though the Ḥatam Sofer published very little during his lifetime, the immense corpus of his posthumous works includes almost twelve hundred responsa (legal opinions), novellae on the Talmud, sermons, biblical and liturgical commentaries, and religious poetry.
Relatively little has been written on Mosheh Sofer in English, and some of this work is marred by a polemical bent. A great deal more is available in Hebrew, including the corpus of his own works. Probably the most balanced assessment is Jacob Katz's "Contributions toward a Biography of R. Moses Sofer" (in Hebrew), in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem (Jerusalem, 1967), edited by E. E. Urbach and others, pp. 115–148.
Schreiber, Aaron M. "The Hatam Sofer's Nuanced Attitude towards Secular Learning, Maskilim, and Reformers." Torah U-Madda Journal 11 (2002–2003): 123–173.
Steven M. Lowenstein (1987)
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