Visitors to the tomb of Ḥatam Sofer, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1974. Photograph by Jacob Roth. (YIVO)

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Sofer Family

Hungarian Orthodox rabbinical family. Upon the death of Mosheh Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer, 1762–1839) of Pressburg (Bratislava), the community fulfilled his deathbed wish to have his eldest son, the 24-year-old Avraham Shemu’el Binyamin Sofer (also known by the German translation of his surname, Schreiber [“scribe”] and called Ketav Sofer; 1815–1871) appointed to fill his positions as rabbi and rosh yeshivah. Although Avraham’s mother was the daughter of the renowned Rabbi Akiva Eger of Posen, Ḥatam Sofer himself was quite the self-made leader, having stemmed from pious but not particularly distinguished Frankfurt lineage.

Subsequently, the Sofer name became synonymous with Hungarian Orthodox rabbinical aristocracy. The descendants, for the most part, continued their famous ancestors’ legacy of fiercely resisting religious and cultural innovations. Despite vocal opposition from liberal communal forces, Ketav Sofer’s son Simḥah Bunim (1842–1906), author of responsa published after his death as Shevet Sofer (1909), inherited the Pressburg rabbinical mantle in 1872. In this capacity, he also served, ex officio as it were, as president of the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinical council and of the Hungarian kolel in Palestine.

Simḥah Bunim’s son, Akiva Sofer (1878–1959), was the last of the family to occupy the rabbinical position in Pressburg. In 1940, he made his way to Palestine, and succeeded in reestablishing the Pressburg yeshiva in Jerusalem. His writings were published posthumously as well, as Da‘at Sofer ‘al ḥamishah ḥumshe Torah (1963) and She’elot u-teshuvot da‘at Sofer (1965). The Sofer family’s prestige was reflected and ensured through its occupation of the Pressburg rabbinate and rosh yeshivah position until World War II (each generation serving 33 years); dozens of rabbinical posts in Hungary were filled by the extended Sofer kin. With the death of Ketav Sofer, however, the Pressburg line retained only formally its leading position in Hungarian Orthodoxy.

Many family members achieved acclaim in Hungary as outstanding halakhic authorities. Shemu’el Ehrenfeld (1835–1883) of Mattersdorf, whose father was the son-in-law of Ḥatam Sofer, wrote responsa titled Ḥatan Sofer (1912). Shim‘on Sofer (1850–1944), the younger son of Ketav Sofer, founded the yeshiva in Eger (Erlau), wrote four volumes of responsa titled She’elot u-teshuvot (1912; 1923–1934), and encouraged the development of a productive agricultural economy in the Land of Israel; he died in Auschwitz. Mosheh Glasner (1856–1924), who succeeded his father, Avraham Glasner (who had married Ḥatam Sofer’s granddaughter) as rabbi of Klausenburg (Kolozsvár; mod. Cluj-Napoca) and published novellae on Ḥulin, Dor revi‘i (1921), whose title hinted at the four generations of the family, was also the author of the posthumously published responsa collection of the same name. Glasner was one of the few Hungarian rabbis to espouse Jewish nationalism; he wrote a pamphlet to that effect in Yiddish-Deutsch, called “Der Zionismus” (1920; Hebrew trans., “Ha-Tsiyonut be-or ha-emunah”; 1961).

Shelomoh Sofer of Beregszász (1853–1930), a third son of Ketav Sofer, was a pioneer of Orthodox historiography who wrote the Sofer–Eger family history, Ḥut meshulash (1887), and edited the important collection of Sofer–Eger correspondence, Igrot Sofrim (1928).

The influence of the Sofer family spread beyond Hungary’s historic borders. Yitsḥak Leib of Drohobycz, another son of Ketav Sofer, served as a lay leader of Galician Jewry. His uncle, Ḥatam Sofer’s second son, Shim‘on (1820–1883), left the rabbinate of Mattersdorf, where his father had also served, in 1861 to accept the prestigious rabbinate of Kraków in Galicia. There he joined the province’s Hasidic leaders to found the Orthodox organization Makhzikey ha-Das to battle the rising modernizing forces among Galician Jewry.

Shim‘on Sofer’s literary abilities were already evident when he was 20, as he wrote a biography of his father and edited the first volume of his father’s responsa. However, his own responsa—eventually issued, along with his sermons, novellae, and letters, as Mikhtav Sofer—had minimal influence, as they were not published until the middle of the twentieth century. His halakhic manifesto “Kuntres mikdash me‘at” (the first entry in the collection), on the positioning of the bimah in the synagogue, is nevertheless an important statement on a topic that became a major boundary marker between Orthodox and liberal religious movements. In 1879, he was elected to parliament in Vienna, but he had limited success advancing his Orthodox agenda.

Shim‘on Sofer’s brother-in-law, Shelomoh Zalman Spitzer (1826–1893), was the leading Orthodox rabbi in Vienna. Inspired by both the Hungarian and German secessionist movements, he sought in 1872 to separate his Orthodox Schiffschul congregation from the general Viennese Jewish community. Despite this bold act, his willingness to preach in German did not sit well with some of his relatives. His sermons touch at times on modern issues, such as Jewish nationalism.

In Israel, distinct branches of the Sofer family have made their presence felt through the establishment of educational institutions, particularly in the Orthodox enclaves of Jerusalem and in Bene Berak. While the Erlau yeshiva survives in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony, the Pressburg brand of Orthodoxy has had to struggle to maintain its Hungarian Ashkenazic (non-Hasidic) character and is on the verge of being swallowed up by the Hasidic world. The most visible public symbol of the Sofer legacy is actually the Ḥug Ḥatam Sofer private kashrut seal, which is considered among the strictest and most reliable in the country. It is owing to the considerable efforts of the Sofer descendants from the Erlau line in Israel that many of their ancestor’s writings that had only been available in manuscript have now been published.

Avraham Sofer-Schreiber (1897–1982), the son of the Erlau rabbi, was a prolific author who, although a scrupulously observant Jew, did not fit smoothly into the family’s Orthodox legacy. He served from 1948 to 1966 on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. From the 1930s on, he dedicated himself to preparing critical editions of the writings of medieval Talmudists, most prominently the voluminous commentary of Menaḥem “ha-Me’iri” of Perpignan.

Suggested Reading

Mosheh Aleksander Zusha Kinstlikher, He-Ḥatam Sofer u-vene doro: Ishim bi-teshuvot Ḥatam Sofer (Bene Berak, Isr., 1992/93); Yitsḥak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Transilvanyah (Jerusalem, 1988/89); Yitsḥak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Hungaryah (Jerusalem, 1996/97); Benjamin Schreiber, Ketov zot zikaron: . . . Toldot mishpaḥat Iger-Sofer (New York, [1957]).