Portrait of Chatam Sofer

Chatam Sofer

Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known as the Chatam Sofer (or Chasam Sofer), was a renowned rabbi and scholar who was born in Frankfurt am Main on 26 September 1762 (7 Tishrei 5523). The Chatam Sofer studied at the yeshiva – rabbinical school – in Mainz and later became a student of Rabbi Nathan Adler in Frankfurt. In 1782, he left Frankfurt for Straznice, today in the Czech Republic, where he married Sarah Yerwitz, his first wife, and became head of the local yeshiva. From 1794, Sofer served as rabbi in Prostejov (today in Czech Republic) and from 1796 in Mattersdorf (now Mattersburg, Austria). In 1806, he accepted an invitation of the Jewish community of Pressburg – Bratislava – and became its Chief Rabbi. Sofer remained in this post for 33 years; he served as av beth din (chief judge of the rabbinical court) and became one of the most respected authorities in Halakhah (Jewish law). About 1200 responsa, or rabbinical rulings, were published posthumously and many of them even today are basic reading for rabbinical students.

Grave of Chatam Sofer

The Chatam Sofer headed a yeshiva in Bratislava that was renowned as one of the most prominent centers of traditional Jewish learning in Europe. With 400 students at its peak, it was the largest yeshiva since Babylonian times. In Hungary alone, the Chatam Sofer counted about one hundred rabbis as his disciples; they went on to defend the ideological position of their charismatic teacher. Strictly orthodox, he spearheaded traditionalist response to the modernizing changes in Jewish society known as haskalah (enlightenment). He correctly foresaw that by removing society’s anti-Jewish legal barriers, the civil emancipation and acculturation of Jews would lead to their unprecedented assimilation. His motto, He-chadash asur min ha-Torah (The new is prohibited by the Torah), summarized his ideological position, which rejected the introduction of changes into Judaism. This became a core principle of what became known as Orthodox Judaism, and the Chatam Sofer can be rightly considered to be one of the founding fathers of this stream.

In 1812, after his first wife died childless, the Chatam Sofer married Sarah, the widowed daughter of Rabbi Akiva Eger of Posen (Poznan). They had ten children, three sons and seven daughters. The Chatam Sofer died on 3 October 1839 (25 Tishrei 5600). He was succeeded as Chief Rabbi of Pressburg by his oldest son, Abraham Samuel Benjamin Schreiber, or the Ketav Sofer (1815-1871), and was later followed by his grandson Simcha Bunim Schreiber, or the Shevet Sofer (1842-1906), and great-grandson Akiva Schreiber.


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