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Sofer, Ḥayim ben Mordekhai Efrayim Fishel

(1821–1886), halakhist, Orthodox leader, and ideologue. Ḥayim Sofer’s grandfather, a native of Frankfurt am Main, settled in Pressburg (Bratislava; then in northwest Hungary, today in Slovakia) toward the end of the eighteenth century. Sofer’s father, Mordekhai Efrayim Fishel, was a religious functionary in the community and a close disciple and confidant (though not a relative) of Mosheh Sofer (known as Ḥatam Sofer, 1762–1839). Although initially Ḥayim Sofer’s father opposed rabbinic careers for his seven sons, the Sofers became one of the major rabbinical families in Hungary. Ḥayim (the sixth son) received his training at Ḥatam Sofer’s yeshiva and internalized the antimodernist approach of his mentor exemplified in the famous slogan, “that which is new is biblically forbidden.”

In the course of a 35-year rabbinical career, Ḥayim Sofer served in four different communities—Gyömrő (Yemring; 1851–1859), Sajószentpéter (1859–1867), Munkács (Mukacheve; 1867–1879), and the Budapest Orthodox community (1879–1886)—each post more distinguished than the previous one. Along the way, his reputation characterized him as one of the most conspicuous extremists within the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinate, though he was simultaneously considered one of its most authoritative halakhic decisors. When he was 41, the first volume of his responsa appeared, most unusual in a culture where such works were almost invariably published posthumously.

Sofer was one of the chief protagonists in the internal struggle waged within Hungarian Orthodoxy in the 1860s. Along with his close allies Hillel Lichtenstein and Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, he initiated the Michalovce conference of 1865. This meeting is considered to be the crucial event in the emergence of ultra-Orthodoxy as an independent, influential force within Hungarian Jewry. The concrete result of this gathering was the circulation of a religious court decision that forbade any changes in synagogue custom, rejecting German sermons and many aesthetic adjustments for which no legal prohibition existed. Sofer also battled the founding of an Orthodox rabbinical seminary proposed by the neo-Orthodox Esriel Hildesheimer. In this institution, traditional studies were to be supplemented with courses in secular fields and in vocational skills such as homiletics.

In 1867, Sofer was appointed to be the rabbi of Munkács, a Hasidic center [see Munkatsh Hasidic Dynasty] that was one of the largest and most prestigious communities in northeastern Hungary (present-day Ukraine). It was during his tenure there that the General Jewish Congress of Hungary took place in Budapest in the winter of 1868–1869. The goal of its sponsors was to create a national umbrella organization that would govern all Jewish communities, whether liberal- or Orthodox-oriented. Sofer was selected as an Orthodox delegate and devoted his efforts toward instigating a mass Orthodox exit from the congress. Indeed, after he and his associates succeeded in creating a permanent division within Hungarian Jewry, his extremism seemed to intensify.

After arriving in Budapest in 1879 as the founding rabbi of the newly constituted independent Orthodox community, Sofer became the most vocal critic of the national Orthodox organization that he himself had helped to found. He rejected the claim that in order to increase grassroots support, the national organization should be willing to accept Jews who publicly violated the Sabbath laws as full-fledged members. Sofer’s own policies during his tenure in Budapest were consistent with his critique of the Orthodox organization. First, he conditioned his acceptance of the Budapest position on the prerequisite that all members in the community had to be fully observant of Sabbath and dietary laws. In addition, he would make surprise visits to homes of congregational members whom he suspected of violating the Sabbath. After he became too ill to go personally, he appointed official supervisors to continue this task.

Sofer’s personal fame, however, was also the result of his vast erudition in the intricacies of Jewish law and in his ability to apply this knowledge to issues confronted by his contemporaries. Other rabbis throughout Hungary continuously sought his opinions. In fact, his polemical writing is only a fraction of his entire literary corpus. The majority of his compositions are exegetical or legal in nature. Of particular note are his eight volumes of halakhic responsa, Maḥaneh Ḥayim (1862–1885). Even when addressing legal issues, Sofer did not hide his ideological position. Yet his halakhic writing is indicative, primarily, of a knowledgeable and authoritative adjudicator plying his trade. Indeed, in numerous cases in which he points to an apparent conflict between his legalistic conclusions and his extremist proclivities, he never ceases to try to protect the integrity and authority of the law. His correspondence of 150 letters, together with a biography written by his son, constitutes an invaluable source for the history of Hungarian Orthodoxy.

Suggested Reading

Adam S. Ferziger, “Religious Zealotry and Religious Law: Rethinking Conflict and Coexistence,” Journal of Religion 84.1 (January 2004): 48–77; Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry, trans. Ziporah Brody (Hanover, N.H., 1998), pp. 64–68, 226–228; 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); Hayyim ben Mordekhai Efrayim Fishel Sofer, Sefer kan sofer, ed. Yosef Tsevi Sofer (London, 1963).