Moses Sofer


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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 Bunem (1842–1906), known as the Shevet Sofer (‘Pen of the Scribe’).

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 famed Talmudist, Rabbi Akiba Eger, contributed to this protest well-reasoned essays in defence of total adherence to traditional forms.

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.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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