Rav Moshe Sofer – the Chasam Sofer – was born in 1766 to Rav Shmuel and Gittel Sofer of Frankfurt Am Mein. Rav Shmuel was an outstanding talmid chacham who traced his yichus back to the Yalkut Shimoni. At the age of three, he turned to his melamed in puzzlement and asked, “Why does the verse repeat itself in the expression ‘afar min ha’adama?'” The melamed tried to hurry on to the next verse, but the young Moshe would not be put off and demanded an answer straight away. Astounded by the child’s grasp, the melamed told Rav Shmuel what had happened. When Rav Shmuel repeated the incident to Rav Nasan Adler, one of the greatest gedolim of the generation, he insisted that Rav Shmuel teach the boy himself.
Rav Shmuel understood that he was grooming a future leader of klal Yisroel and invested all his energies into the boy’s chinuch, both of the intellect and of the character.
Judging by the following anecdote, his efforts obviously had an impact on the child. When Rav Moshe was just five years old, he discovered that there is a difference of opinion concerning which berachah should be recited over sugar. Then and there he resolved never to suck sugar again. This was a remarkable resolution when one takes into consideration the fact that candies were virtually non-existent in those days. At seven years of age Moshe completed Maseches Beitza and said chidushim at the siyum.
WITH RAV NOSSON ADLER
An incident occurred when Rav Moshe was ten years old that changed the entire course of his life. Rav Moshe was delivering a drashsa in Rav Nosson Adler’s beis medrash in the presence of Frankfurt’s most notable talmidei chachamim, when he refuted one of the insights of his grandfather, the Maharshach. Rav Moshe’s father became upset and publicly slapped his son in the face.
Rav Nosson called Rav Shmuel aside and said: “I command that Moshe leaves your home. I will care of him and teach him myself.”
Under Rav Nosson’s tutelage Rav Moshe’s knowledge of Torah and kabbala rocketed, and he imbibed his teacher’s saintly ways. In later years it was said that Rav Moshe never forgot a single chidush of his, and that he could do three things simultaneously – speak with someone, prepare his shiurim, and prepare answers to halachic problems. He studied in a small room near the main beis medrash near where Rav Nosson answered sha’alos, and in this way he witnessed Rav Nosson’s encounters with gedolei Yisroel and had “shimush.”
IN THE EYE OF A STORM
Rav Moshe studied in the yeshivah of Rav Tavil Shayer in Magentsa until the age of sixteen, at which point his parents called him back to Frankfurt. He returned to the German city in 1782.
Meanwhile, dissension had arisen in Frankfurt. There were those who resented Rav Nasan Adler’s leanings towards kabbala, and he was forced to leave and accept a position in the Moravian city of Boskovitz. As he left, accompanied by a huge throng, Rav Moshe plaintively cried out, “I wish to serve my teacher and rabbi in Boskovitz!” Suddenly, he realized that he’d forgotten to add the words “b’li neder” to his pronouncement, and he quickly asked Rav Nosson if this constituted a neder. Rav Nosson nodded affirmatively.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Rav Moshe tried to leap into Rav Nasan’s wagon, but there was no room for him. Desperate, he raced after the wagon for a few miles until he caught up with it at a crossroads. Impressed by his talmid’s mesirus nefesh, Rav Adler made a place for him in the wagon and took him along to Boskowitz.
After three years Rav Nasan was forced to return to Frankfurt because of an informer, but Rav Moshe stayed on, opened a yeshiva, and married the daughter of the rav of Prosnitz who had recently passed away. Rav Moshe also learned with Rav Pinchos Halevi Horowitz, the Ba’al Haflo’oh, whom he also considered his Rebbe Muvhak. Rav Pinchos was sent to Frankfurt by his Rebbe, the maggid of Mezeritch.
For seven years Rav Moshe was supported by his brother-in-law, Rav Hirsch, and he devoted himself totally to Torah until Rav Hirsch lost all of his money. When Rav Moshe saw that his wife was forced to sell her head-covering to buy wine for kiddush he reluctantly accepted an offer to serve as rav in the Moravian city of Dresnitz.
Soon afterward, his brother-in-law’s finances improved and he quipped to Rav Moshe: “It appears that my financial downfall came min hasShomayim just to force you to accept a rabbinical position.” After five years in Dresnitz, Rav Moshe moved to Mattersdorf, where the community undertook to feed and supoort the bachurim of his yeshivah.
NEXT STOP: MATTERSDORF
The Chasam Sofer’s next stop was Mattersdorf, one of the seven most prominent Jewish kehillos in Hungary, where he served as rav of the kehilla. His yeshiva there expanded to hundreds of students and produced many gedolei hador. But after four years of his yeshiva’s exponential growth rate, even Mattersdorf was unable to support Rav Moshe’s talmidim.
Rav Moshe did not see this as a problem, since there were many large and wealthy Jewish communities in Europe that were vying with each other for the privilege of having the Chasam Sofer as their rav. Neustadt, one of those communities, agreed to accept the Chasam Sofer’s strictest conditions regarding support for his yeshiva.
But a week before the Chasam Sofer’s departure from Mattersdorf to Neustadt, on the 18th of Adar, 5562 (1801), a huge fire broke out in Mattersdorf’s Jewish quarter, and all of Rav Moshe’s plans had to be changed. The fire did not claim any lives, but all of the community’s properties and assets went up in flames. As the fire leaped from one house to the next, the residents noticed that only one house still remained intact – the Chasam Sofer’s.
In his house were stored large sums of money that people had entrusted to him in his position as rav of the community, as well as all of his precious manuscripts, which were later to form the Chasam Sofer’s chiddushim and responsa literature. The people realized that it was vital to secure sufficient water to combat the fire and protect the Chasam Sofer’s house at all cost.
However, the only local well of water in the area was a few minutes walk distant from the Chasam Sofer’s house, and time was of the essence.
While everyone stood around wondering what to do, a new student in the Chasam Sofer’s yeshiva walked over to the old and rusty well in the Chasam Sofer’s backyard, which had been dormant for years, and he threw a bucket into it. A huge jet of water burst forth, providing enough water to douse the fire. Immediately after the fire was put out, the well returned to its previous defunct state.
Seeing the destruction all around him, the Chasam Sofer canceled his plans to move to Neustadt, and remained in Mattersdorf to help renovate and restore his beloved city of Mattersdorf.
After finding lodgings for the homeless, the Chasam Sofer organized a rescue campaign, sending letters to all of the Jewish communities in Europe. Soon money, clothing, food, seforim and religious articles streamed into the city and were promptly distributed to the needy and the homeless.
At this time the Chasam Sofer forgot about his own needs. There were times when he couldn’t even afford paper to write his chiddushim. Instead, he recorded them on the empty pages at the beginnings and the ends of the seforim in his possession.
The Chasam Sofer’s grandson, Rav Shlomo Sofer, rav of Bergsas, recalls that during this entire period, his grandfather never slept in a bed out of sympathy with the suffering of the rest of the Jews of Mattersdorf.
Throughout his life, Rav Moshe’s attitude was one of complete dedication to the Jewish people. A money-forging press was once discovered near Pressburg and the police arrested a number of communal leaders, stipulating that they would be freed only if the local rav swore to their innocence. But the local rav was terrified to make an oath even on what he knew to be the truth, and so he went to ask Rav Moshe what he should do.
Drawing himself up to his full height, the Chasam Sofer shouted, “Jews have been thrown into jail for weeks on end, and families have been left with no source of livelihood, and you’re worrying about your olam haba?
Believe me, my dear friend, that in Hashem’s eyes, freeing a Jew from a dungeon is more important than your eternal reward.” On another occasion Rav Moshe called a talmid into his study on Erev Yom Kippur and said, “I want you to agree to my suggestion. There is an orphan girl who has reached marriageable age. No one is making any effort to help her, and I want you to marry her.”
The talmid agreed. Rav Moshe’s face lit up with joy, and he announced, “With this merit I will enter the day of judgement!” Rav Shimon Sofer writes that his father said three things about himself:
“From the day I gained intelligence, I never had an alien thought in my prayers; I never felt a sense of pride, whether publicly teaching or whether making chidushim, except once in my first derasha in Dresnitz, and that was to show that I could learn and so that they should hold me in awe and obey my words; and I ran my house and the community with regal dignity, purely leshem Shamayim.”
FIGHTING THE REFORM MOVEMENT
Once Mattersdorf was rejuvenated, the Chasam Sofer, sought another position and soon an offer came from Pressburg, whose rav, the esteemed Rav Meshulam Igra, had passed away.
Over the years, Pressburg’s leaders had reviewed numerous candidates for the rav of their city, but no actual appointments had been made. Yet when the Chasam Sofer’s name was mentioned, all of the city’s leaders approved the proposal despite his stipualtion demanding full support of his yeshiva.
However, his appointment was opposed by a small group of Pressburg maskilim who feared the Chasam Sofer’s firm insistence that every halacha and minhag be scrupulously observed.
An anonymous letter was sent to Rav Moshe saying among other things: “If the rabbi shames no man or woman and brings no stringencies from the place from where he comes, the honorable rabbi will live in peace and will never lack a livelihood. But if not, then the rabbi will be attacked and he will live in disgrace.”
In later years Rav Moshe wrote, “My enemies set an ambush for my soul until at night I said, ‘Would that it were day,’ and at morning I said, ‘Would that it were night.’ Nevertheless, I never left the beis hamidrash and I never missed even one shiur and I did not cease to make fences for the law. Had Hashem not helped me, I would have been sent to prison for life.”
In one of his famouse responsa Rav Moshe writes “that he is so harried that he does not even have tome to swallow his own saliva!”
RAV OF PRESSBURG
The Chasam Sofer was officially appointed Rav of Pressburg in Tishrei 5567 (1806), and he occupied that position for thirty three years. He rapidly became regarded as the rav of the entire Diaspora, to whom questions from all over the world were addressed. Meanwhile, his yeshiva continued to expand, spreading Torah to thousands of talmidim.
Siyata D’Shmaya was very apparent in Rav Moshe’s halachic opinions. On one occasion he was asked a question involving an agunah whom many prominent rabbonim had allowed to remarry. “According to strict halacha,” said Rav Moshe, “I cannot argue with them. But my heart tells me that her husband is still alive.” The woman accepted Rav Moshe’s opinion and, sure enough, her husband returned not long after.
His son, Rav Shimon Sofer of Cracow once asked Rav Moshe how he managed to answer halachic questions with hardly more than a quick review of the related issues.
“”It is true,” replied Rav Moshe, “that halachic decisions normally require deep analysis. But in every generation Hashem designates a person who holds the keys to all hidden things, and this person is endowed with special siyata diShmaya. With great efforts I have prepared myself to be ready to solve halacha problems and I have, baruch Hashem, freed myself from all personal bias. Therefore it is not possible that I will err in a ruling. At the most I will err in my choice of proofs.”
Similarly, Rav Nasan Adler once stated, “I know that Rav Moshe Sofer is constantly cleaving to Hashem. For this reason he has been endowed with such great siyata diShmaya to rule according to halacha.”
Baron Rosthchild was a great admirer of the Chasam Sofer. He tried to institute the position of Chief Rabbi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he intended Rav Moshe to be the one to fill this position. But with his far-sightedness, Rav Moshe rejected the idea.
“When a person does a public action in our times,” he explained, “he must be sure that no mishap will arise from it. As I long as I filled the position [of Chief Rabbi] I could hope for this, but who knows what would happen to the person who came after me?”
After the petira of his first wife, Rav Moshe married the daughter of Rav Akiva Eiger. She bore the previously childless Chasam Sofer seven daughters and three sons: Rav Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin, the Ksav Sofer; Rav Shimon Sofer, the Rav of Cracow; and Rav Yosef Yuzpa Sofer.
In Pressburg, his main efforts focused on enriching and expanding his yeshiva. His students eventually went on to lead prominent communities in Europe. It may be said that the majority of the gedolei haTorah and rabbanim who led European Jewry in that generation and the ensuing one emerged from the Chasam Sofer’s yeshiva.
While the Chasam Sofer maintained rigid acceptance standards and discipline in his yeshiva, he was nonetheless like a father to his students, attending to all of their needs with genuine love. It is said that not one of his talmidim left the path of Torah.
Once Rav Moshe spotted a group of talmidim going outside with unclean clothes and unpolished shoes. “A person who is particular about his appearance and not about his soul,” he told them, “is like a garbage bin covered with roses. But a person who is worried about his soul and not about his appearance is like a vase of roses covered in garbage. Anyone seeing the garbage is disgusted and turns away.”
Once, he firmly rejected a youth who had applied to be accepted to his yeshiva. When Rav Moseh was asked the reason for this, he replied: “I looked out the window and saw the bachur step on some palm branches lying in the courtyard which I had used for my sukkah thus showing disrespect for something used for a mitzvah.” Even a person’s trivial actions spoke volumes to Rav Moshe.
Rav Moshe taught his talmidim to learn gemara according to its plain meaning and was violently opposed to a method of pilpul know as “chilukim” which tended to obscure the true intent of Chazal and forced talmidim to concentrate on a few scattered sugyas rather than learning the whole tractate.
The Chasam Sofer waged a valiant and mighty battle against the maskilim of his time, using every means available to counter them. “If their judgement was put into our hands,” he wrote, “my opinion would be to drive them from our midst. Our daughters would not be given to their sons, nor our sons to their daughters, lest they be drawn after them. Their communities would be like the communities of Zadok and Baisus, they for themselves, and us for ourselves.”
Rav Moshe’s famous war cry was: “Chadash [new philosophical ideas] is forbidden by the Torah!”
On one occasion the Chasam Sofer warned a wealthy couple to perform their wedding ceremony under the open sky, as per Jewish tradition, and not inside a shul, in accordance with Reform custom. When the bridegroom refused, Rav Moshe announced, “I doubt that the children of this couple will remain Jews!” Years later his warning came about when the couple converted.
“It is true that my father could foretell the future,” explained the Kesav Sofer, the Chasam Sofer’s son, “but in this case he was guided by his wisdom. My father knew that it is not the external sprinkling of holy water that converts a Jew into a gentile, but his internal desire to deny his Jewish identity. Whether this desire is great or small makes no difference. The point is his desire to imitate the gentile.” Despite his fierceness in this war, Rav Moshe tearfully begged Hashem to pity His nation, and to cause the errant to repent their sins and return to a Torah way of life.
He was joined in this battle by his father-in-law, Rav Akiva Eiger, as well as by Rav Mordechai Banet of Nikolsberg, Rav Yosef Shaul Natanson of Lemberg, Rav Betzalel Ranceborg of Prague and other gedolim of the time. The Chasam Sofer continued waging this battle until his final day.
Although the maskilim tried to undermine the yeshiva and to bring about the Chasam Sofer’s downfall, their efforts failed.
LOVE OF ERETZ YISROEL
The Chasam Sofer was imbued with a deep love of Eretz Hakodesh, and was one of the staunchest supporters of the yishuv. Regarding those Jews who regarded the emancipation of Jews in Europe as a lessening of our urgent need to return to Zion, he would repeat the following parable: A prince was once driven far away from his father’s palace, but as the years rolled on he never lost the hope that his father would one day call him back. But one day a royal wagon arrived and a team of architects and workers jumped out and began building the prince a beautiful mansion in his remote village. “Woe is me!” cried the prince.
“It seems that my father intends me to stay here for ever!” So too, emancipation in Europe would perhaps make the Jews’ exile easier, but it was no replacement for their ancestral home in Eretz Yisroel. Due to the love he instilled in his students for Eretz Hakodesh, many of them settled there. As president of Kollel Shomrei Hachomos of Rav Meir Baal Haness, the Chasam Sofer labored tirelessly for the sake of the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel urging the community to contribute generously.
His offspring inherited the position.
During World War I, more than 75 years after the petira of the Chasam Sofer, when famine raged throughout Eretz Yisroel, Hungary’s Jews were still among its staunchest supporters, rallying to the aid of their brethren there.
On Succos of 5600 (1839), the Chasam Sofer became ill. He asked for his bed to be moved to the Succah, and there he lay, unable to move. On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, the pain-wracked tzadik overcame his suffering and began to study Torah with amazing hasmada. Towards morning, he ran to shul and davened with the congregation. But in the middle of the davening, his illness overcame him, and he was forced to return home.
On Simchas Torah, he held a minyan in his home and was called to the Torah as Chassan Torah. Then in his tranquil voice, he said some remarkable chiddushim, astounding the doctors present with his superhuman stamina.
On the 25th of Tishrei, his situation took a drastic turn for the worse.
Surrounded by his students, he cried out “Shema Yisroel,” and returned his pure soul to Maker.
Klal Yisroel was bereft, for it had lost one of its great Torah leaders, but his profound influence and teachings in his many sefrom (Shailos and Teshuvos, Chiddushim on Shas, and Sifrei Chasam Sofer on Torah) will guide and inspire us forever.
May his memory be a blessing.