Rabbi Moshe Sofer • “the Chatam Sofer”

Rabbeinu Moshe Sofer, better known by the name Chatam Sofer (from the title of his book, taken from the words Chiddushei Torah Moshe Sofer), was among the Gaonim and Tzaddikim loved by all people and whose name is considered as holy.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer was born on Tishri 7, 5524 (September 14, 1763) in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. His father, Rabbi Shemuel, was a man filled of wisdom and the fear of G-d, and he became known for his work as a scribe. This was a family profession, hence the name Sofer (“scribe” in Hebrew). Rabbi Moshe’s mother was known in town as Reisel the Tzaddiket because of her many acts of charity.

What follows is the story of Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s birth: For twenty years, Rabbi Shemuel and his wife Reisel were unable to have children, and they both multiplied their prayers, fasts, and gifts to Tzeddakah. At the end of these twenty years, Reisel conceived and gave birth to a boy. She felt the birth approaching on the day before Shabbat Teshuvah, around nighttime, and she was very much afraid of profaning Shabbat because of it. She sent for the Rav of the town, Rabbi Avraham Abush, and asked him to help her by ordering that they wait until she give birth before welcoming Shabbat in Synagogue, for normally Shabbat was received very early. Accepting her request, the Rav said, “It is certain that the child who will emerge from this Tzaddiket will be among the great men of Israel.” That child, of course, was Rabbi Moshe Sofer.

At the age of nine he began to study with one of the greats of his time, the Gaon and Chassid Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfurt-am-Main. Even though he learned Torah from other great rabbanim, Rabbi Moshe Sofer always considered Rabbi Nathan as his principle teacher. He ate and slept by the Rav’s, learning not only Torah from him, but also how to conduct himself.

In his old age he described to his students the dedication he had for his teacher: “I was a faithful disciple of my teacher. I cut wood and drew water for him. And that is what supported me. Serving the Torah is more important than studying it.”

He also told his disciples the following:

“One day I went with my teacher on a long journey during winter. While traveling he wanted to eat some bread that he had, but there was no water to wash his hands with. I got down from the wagon, took my teacher’s glass, and I filled it with ice. I held it with my two hands until the ice melted and became water, enough for him to wash his hands with, and then I gave it to him. I was a faithful student of my teacher, and I received his teachings directly from him.”

Rabbi Nathan did not want Rabbi Moshe to depend on him, but rather pushed him to be independent and known for his brilliant abilities and noble character. Even though he did not want to become a Rabbi, he was a faithful student, and after getting married he became the Rav of the community of Dresnitz in Moravia. He was then 32 years old. From there he moved to Prossnitz, then to the important orthodox community of Mattersdorf, Hungary. As soon as he arrived there, he established a yeshiva that students flocked to from all around.

Rabbi Moshe stayed in Mattersdorf for eight years, and throughout Hungary he became famous as a Rav, Posek, and teacher of Torah. When the renowned Rav of Pressburg, Rabbi Meshulam Igra, passed away, people came to offer his position to Rabbi Moshe Sofer.

Rabbi Moshe became the Rav of Pressburg at the start of 5567 (1806), and he stayed there for 33 years.

In arriving at Pressburg, he opened a great yeshiva from which Torah and its Halachic rulings emerged, as well as many great individuals who illuminated the Diaspora. Except on Tisha B’Av, he never missed giving courses to hundreds of students. He even gave courses on the night of Yom Kippur.

The students that emerged from his yeshiva helped him in his battle against those who wanted to introduce the Reform movement to Pressburg. We know his famous saying: “That which is novel [literally, ‘the new harvest’] is forbidden by the Torah.” According to the Chatam Sofer, the Reform movement disavows the G-d of Israel and His Torah, as well as the Jewish people and their special traits.

The city of Pressburg would henceforth be known as “the Jerusalem of Hungary.” Wherever they were in Pressburg, the eyes of Jews turned to the Chatam Sofer’s Beit Midrash. The great of his generation sent him Halachic questions, and community heads and leaders traveled to Pressburg to get the Chatam Sofer’s advice and directives. Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Sofer considered himself not only as the Rav of the city, but also pushed himself, according to the needs of the hour, to take care of far-off communities, some of which were thousands of miles away. During that time people said, “From out of Pressburg comes the Torah.”

In 5593 (1833), the government accepted to give Jews equality under the law. The joy of the masses was immense, and the leaders of the city’s Jewish community asked their Rav to express his views on it. The Chatam Sofer stepped up to the podium and said: “In my opinion, not only is there no reason to rejoice in this, but on the contrary, this is a decision that we should regret. To what can this be compared? It is like the son of a king, whom his father exiled. After a certain time, the king sends him some builders to construct a palace for him abroad, but to the great surprise of the builders, the son bursts into tears and says, ‘Now I believe that I will stay in exile even longer. Otherwise, my father would not have taken the trouble to build me a palace here in exile.’ ” The Chatam Sofer continued and said, “Now I am afraid that the King of kings wants to leave us in exile even longer.” He then burst into tears, he and the entire community with him.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s greatness in Torah was equaled, if perhaps surpassed, by his great humility. Responsum numbering 1,370 were published in his name, without counting his commentaries on the Talmud (in several volumes) as well as books filled with his discourses, all of which were published after his death. This is because he did not allow his responsum to be published while he was alive. What follows is the marvelous way in which he explained his decision to those who asked for one of his works: “I have heard, your greatness, that you learned that I wrote a discourse and desire that I should send it to you. My heart does not yet allow me to do this. Actually, you and most people – who are greater and better than myself, or at least at the same level – do not need me. As for the small number of those who are at a lower level, why should I trouble myself for such a tiny minority? I write whatever G-d inspires me to write in books, and they are at everyone’s disposal. Whoever wants to copy one may do so. That is what our ancestors did before there was printing, and I am not obligated to do more.”

On Tishri 25, 5600 (October 3, 1839), Rabbi Moshe Sofer cried out with a powerful voice Shema Israel, and his soul departed in purity. At his funeral, more than 90 manuscripts in book form were carried by his students as they followed his casket.




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