Ockham’s Razor and Hatam Sofer

Let’s start with a trivia question: Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) sent responsa to every single Jewish community (in existence at the time) in one modern-day country. What country is it?

Not long ago, I (Moshe) was in the backseat of my grandfather’s car, and we were schmoozing about HaMapah. I mentioned we were mapping the responsa of Hatam Sofer and his first question was: “and was he sent questions from all of Europe?”

We’ll get to that in a minute.

One of our central goals is to try to understand the halakhic world as it was perceived by people at the particular time, not as we presently interpret it. Today one might hear in the oylem that “Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to all of Europe”. But is this assertion in fact, true?

Let’s try to refine the question a bit. Europe is a big place and Jews were only in some parts of it. Poskim only sent responsa to places with Jews, so “all of Europe” really means “every Jewish area in Europe.” So to answer the trivia question we opened with, Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to the only two towns in Switzerland where Jews were allowed to live at the time.[1] Thus, trivial as it may sound, in Jewish terms, Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to all of Switzerland.

But even on this relatively lenient standard, the prevailing assumptions are all wrong. Out of 675 responsa of Hatam Sofer for which we have place data, a grand total of three were sent anywhere within the vast Russian Empire. While it is possible that he in fact wrote several hundred teshuvot to Russia, and they were all chucked into a fire by some angry Hungarian muttering obscenities about Litvaks, this strikes me as incredibly improbable.[2] Ockham’s Razor tells us that we should dismiss the common belief. I also want to preempt an objection–“but look at how widely he’s quoted”–by noting that all of Hatam Sofer’s works were published posthumously.

Let us compare Hatam Sofer to the person with whom we would most intuitively associate him: his father-in-law and near exact contemporary–they were born within a year of each other and died within two–Rabbi Akiva Eger. Both established themselves far from where they were born but in German-speaking areas: Hatam Sofer was born in Frankfurt but established himself in Central Europe: first in Dresnitz (Strasnice, Czechia), then Mattersdorf (Mattersburg, Austria), and finally, for the last 30+ years of his life, in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia). R. Akiva Eger, on the other hand, was born in Eisenstadt (Austria–very close to Mattersdorf; both are part of the Siebengemeinden, the “Sheva Kehilot” in Burgenland, or, in Elli’s preferred parlance, “the Seven Dorfs”). His rabbinic career took him north into Silesia and then to the territories that Prussia had recently sliced off of Poland. The last two decades of his life he was the rabbi of Posen (Poznan, Poland).

Today, they are considered transcendent figures. However, in their lifetimes, they were not transcendent. Consider this map of the two of them, and see for yourself what they did not transcend. (In a new tab)

(Hatam Sofer is blue, R. Akiva Eger is red)

The sorting effect is really dramatic–the choice between R. Akiva Eger and Hatam Sofer falls cleanly on Austrian vs. Prussian lines. The main outliers for both R. Akiva Eger and Hatam Sofer are one another. An inordinate number of responsa written by Hatam Sofer to Prussia were to R. Akiva Eger, and an inordinate number of responsa written by R. Akiva Eger to the Austrian Empire were to Hatam Sofer and his son, R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer).

Why does psak tend to stay within the same country? There’s no per se halakhic reason; the halakhic system and methodology, as generally laid out, should not assign any value to the Austria/Prussia border. However, how the system “should” work is ultimately not the point.

Halakhah, and I thank Russ Roberts and EconTalk for inspiring this point (Elli touched on some of this in our first post, but I prefer a different angle, specifically, less top-down and more bottom-up or agent driven, perhaps more Hayekian?) is a case of emergent order. Nobody designed our modern halakhic apparatus. Nobody assigned you to a specific posek, and no “posek ha-dor” was ever voted on and elected (at least not in the last millenium). It is an organic, spontaneous, informal system that arises from the decisions of independent agents. These independent agents might think that their posek should be a good Prussian, and there is little that can be done about it. A few generations later, different independent agents might decide that Hatam Sofer was the posek ha-dor of a generation when none of those agents were alive.

Today, any respectable beit midrash needs a Hiddushei Rabbi Akiva Eger and a Responsa Hatam Sofer, yet the converse is not true: Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eger and Hiddushei Hatam Sofer are not mainstays in the same way. No grand theory of halakhah can easily account for why their works should be so bifurcated in terms of importance. How is it that R. Shabbetai Cohen wrote arguably the most important commentary on Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah, and an utterly forgotten book on Tur Yoreh Deah? This is emergent order created by the independent actions of independent agents.[3]

One last note: Hatam Sofer is interesting. Unlike almost everyone else we’ve done so far, who were usually “just” poskim, he was an influential pedagogue. His students express tremendous love for him, not just as a posek or a scholarly role model, but in a personal way, too. Our operative theory here is that his influence really begins to expand as his students take up positions around Hungary. This can be seen on a map of Hatam Sofer’s responsa as function of time:

(In a new tab)

[1] These are Ettlingen and Lengnau, which are actually only a couple kilometers apart; they even shared their cemetery.

[2] Though as a dependent probability, if an angry Hungarian did chuck them into a fire, it seems pretty probable that he was muttering obscenities about Litvaks.

[3] F.A. Hayek writes (Law, Legislation and Liberty, pp. 118-119):

“The judge, in other words, serves, or tries to maintain and improve, a going order which nobody has designed, an order that has formed itself without the knowledge and often against the will of authority, that extends beyond the range of deliberate organization on the part of anybody, and that is not based on the individuals doing anybody’s will, but on their expectations becoming mutually adjusted. The reason why the judge will be asked to intervene will be that the rules which secure such a matching of expectations are not always observed, or clear enough, or adequate to prevent conflicts even if observed. Since new situations in which the established rules are not adequate will constantly arise, the task of preventing conflict and enhancing the compatibility of actions by appropriately delimiting the range of permitted actions is of necessity a never-ending one, requiring not only the application of already established rules but also the formulation of new rules necessary for the preservation of the order of actions. In their endeavour to cope with new problems by the application of ‘principles’ which they have to distil from the ratio decidendi of earlier decisions, and so to develop these inchoate rules (which is what ‘principles’ are) that they will produce the desired effect in new situations, neither the judges nor the parties involved need to know anything about the nature of the resulting overall order, or about any ‘interest of society’ which they serve, beyond the fact that the rules are meant to assist the individuals in successfully forming expectations in a wide range of circumstances.”

I think every word here applies to halakhah, even more so than the original, given how the selection of the judge/posek is a case of spontaneous order in and of itself.

5 thoughts on “Ockham’s Razor and Hatam Sofer”

  1. I’d like to push back against your use of Hayek:
    First of all, how sure are you that the question of which posek to write to was an organic, spontaneous, and informal? Are you sure there were no government regulations or pressure? None from the Jewish communal institutions?
    Looking at your example of the Hatam Sofer, did the wars of 1792-1815 (including the siege of Pressburg) not affect the mails, and the ease of sending questions and responses? Even afterwards, isn’t it likely that the location of correspondents was affected by mundane issues such as mail service, customs, police, and so on?
    Finally, I don’t think the Hayek quote describes any judicial institution with which I’m familiar, but do you really think that poskim have no opinion on “the nature of the resulting overall order, or about any ‘interest of society’ which they serve”?

    1. In order:
      1) Pressure from Jewish communal institutions – probably. I’m not aware of much in the way of government regulations per se, who the official rabbis were of major cities is actually pretty important to the development of psak, but if they weren’t that good, they’d generally be ignored. And in later cases – Berezhany is not the largest or most important community in Galicia, yet Maharsham is far more important than his contemporaries with more important or prestigious pulpits.
      2) I don’t see what this has to do with Hayek, but it almost certainly did. Here’s a graph of Teshuvot by year – https://plot.ly/~schorrm/35/ – but I certainly don’t think that the effect of real life on his career detracts from the point being made. I think it is influential, maybe even very influential, and formalist theories of Halakha ascribe no value to that. I don’t think the impact of wars and other events detracts from the emergent nature of the Halakhic order.
      3) That particular point is a good one, however:
      “neither the judges nor the parties involved need to know anything about the nature of the resulting overall order” – this seems almost certainly true for the parties involved, being ignorant doesn’t disqualify a questioner, and for probably most questions, I don’t think the “the nature of the resulting overall order” comes into play. Most questions are answered with regard to the question, “the nature of the resulting overall order” may be a factor, but it also may not be. Sometimes it’s just narrowly tailored to the case. Or a posek can be used despite his views on the system being completely ignored. Yaavetz is widely used, despite very few later poskim sharing his views on the Halakhic system. I do think it legitimately takes a backseat.
      I think some of the other points made there:
      – “an order that has formed itself without the knowledge and often against the will of authority” — sounds a lot like minhag, especially the way most of the early Ashkenazi Rishonim write about minhag.
      – “that extends beyond the range of deliberate organization on the part of anybody” — It’s hard to think of a system with less deliberate organization.

      1. Back to the Napoleonic wars for a second – let’s start with a disclaimer: I think date data tends to be relatively noisy, at least noisier than locations. The caveat remains: there’s a lot of noise, but there’s something going on with the Napoleonic Wars.
        These are the dates of his Teshuvot in 1809 – it’s a pretty bad year:
        1/5, 3/3, 5/25, 7/28, 11/7, 11/9, 11/9, 11/29, 12/11, 12/31.
        The one from July 28th is internal – inside Pressburg – and the other ones with clear locations are 3/3 – Güssing, 11/9 – Dunajska Streda, 11/29 – Siret. So a little hard to tell, but it definitely seems that there’s an effect. What is up with the one from May 25th is unclear, not clear where it was sent – may or may not have left Pressburg. It’s a good question, what exactly the effects were.

  2. Can I have some of what you are smoking? Are you seriously claiming that the Chidushei Rabbi Akiva Eger is ubiquitous whereas the Teshuvos is not?
    FYI, nowadays, the Teshuvos have been rearranged in the order of Shas, so Batei Midrash do not need to buy both. But in Batei Medrash of days gone by, before the Zichron Yaakov press printed the Teshuvos in the order of Shas, the Teshuvos Rabbi Akiva Eger was just as ubiquitous as his Chidushim

  3. Switzerland did exist till treaty of Vienna rearranged the world order post Napoleon. It was 22 (actually, I think a few less) individual countries (cantons).
    Much as Germany was till Prussia Bismarck took over.

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