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Sofer, Avraham Shemu’el Binyamin

(1815–1871), rabbi, halakhist, exegete, and Orthodox leader. Known as Ketav Sofer, Avraham Sofer (Schreiber) was the eldest son of the chief rabbi of Pressburg (Bratislava), Mosheh Sofer (known as Ḥatam Sofer), and the grandson of Akiva Eger of Posen. Upon the death of Ḥatam Sofer in 1839, his supporters overcame considerable opposition and fulfilled their master’s deathbed wish that his son succeed him. Thus, the 24-year-old scholar was catapulted into the coveted role of Pressburg rabbi and head of its famed yeshiva.

Despite chronic health problems and lack of leadership experience, Avraham Sofer proved to be a worthy successor. He expanded the yeshiva, was widely regarded as a preeminent halakhic authority, and subscribed to his father’s worldview, which rejected modern cultural, political, and social reform. But faced with an increasingly acculturated constituency, including many of his own local Orthodox supporters, the Ketav Sofer increasingly adopted a more moderate and compromising stance. Such a pragmatic approach was reflected in his efforts in the early 1860s to recruit an individual adept at preaching in German to share some of the responsibilities of the Pressburg rabbinate. Initially he negotiated with Esriel Hildesheimer, the rabbi of Eisenstadt who later gained fame as the founder and rector of the Orthodox Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. After Hildesheimer had second thoughts, Sofer supported the candidacy of the talented orator Philip (Feisch) Fischmann, the rabbi of Kolozsvár (Klausenburg; mod. Cluj-Napoca). While many greeted Fischmann with enthusiasm, the more religiously zealous harshly attacked the choice.

The ultra-Orthodox camp translated its opposition into Jewish communal policy when 25 rabbis gathered in Michalovce in 1865 and issued a “rabbinical court decision” that, among other things, forbade synagogue sermons in the vernacular. The decision was a thinly veiled attack on Pressburg Orthodoxy, on Fischmann, and on Sofer—who, like most of the leading Orthodox rabbis in Hungary, refused to join the eventual 71 signatories. Subsequent events suggest, however, that these internal debates did not cause permanent damage to Sofer’s position as the consensus leader of Hungarian Orthodoxy.

When plans to establish a Hungarian Jewish congress, attended by representatives from all factions, became known in 1867, Sofer was unanimously chosen as president of the rabbinical committee that would articulate Orthodox policy at the gathering. Indeed, despite deteriorating health, he remained in Budapest throughout the three-month Congress that opened on 10 December 1869, where he aligned the Pressburg delegates with Hildesheimer’s moderate faction.

Sofer died on 31 December 1871, just a short time after an independent national Orthodox organization was officially sanctioned by the government. Ironically, this achievement actually paved the way for the transformation of the more radical ultra-Orthodox outlook that he had previously opposed into the normative Hungarian Orthodox worldview.

Many of Sofer’s voluminous writings were posthumously published from manuscript by family members and institutes dedicated to this purpose; he published no books in his lifetime. More than 500 responsa have been published to date, in the collections Teshuvot Ketav Sofer (1873–1894) and She’elot u-teshuvot Ḥatam Sofer ha-ḥadashot (1989; see pp. 119–141). His published novellae cover almost every Talmudic tractate, and his biblical commentaries and sermons have appeared as Sefer Ketav Sofer ‘al ḥamishah ḥumshe Torah (1883), Masakh Pesaḥ (Haggadah; 1894), Sefer Ketav Sofer (1942–1972), Sefer Ketav ve-Ḥatam Sofer ‘al ha-Torah (1988), and Sefer Ketav Sofer he-ḥadash al ha-Torah ve-ḥamesh megilot (1989).

Suggested Reading

Me’ir Hildesheimer, “Rabane Hungaryah ve-asefat Mikhalovits,” Kiryat sefer 63.3 (1990): 941–951; Jacob Katz, A House Divided (Hanover, N.H., 1998); Mosheh Aleksander Zusha Kinstlikher, He-Ḥatam Sofer u-vene doro: Ishim bi-teshuvot Ḥatam Sofer (Bene Berak, Isr., 1992/93), pp. 47–49; Yitsḥak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Hungaryah (Jerusalem, 1996/97), pp. 32–149, 164–165, 313–316; Salomon Schreiber (Shelomo Sofer), Ḥut ha-meshulash (Paks, 1887), pp. 231–287; Salomon Schreiber (Shelomo Sofer), ed., Igrot sofrim (Vienna and Budapest, 1933); Michael K. Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 23–84 (New York, 1992), see esp. pp. 37–40.