The Hatam Sofer’s Umbrella (Signal and Noise: Part II)

One of the Hatam Sofer’s best known responsa is Orah Hayim 72 (with my [Elli’s] translation for Sefaria), where he discusses opening and carrying an umbrella (more specifically, a parasol) on Shabbat. Its fame is due largely to its relatively lenient ruling, which flies in the face of the commonly-accepted stringent ruling (in my young adulthood, black hats in blue plastic “Seven Mile Market” bags were de rigueur on rainy Friday nights in Baltimore).

This responsum can be situated more precisely: It was written in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia) on Monday, Ta’anit Esther, 5573, or the Ides of March, 1813. There is no questioner listed; Hatam Sofer is responding directly to the stringent ruling of Noda BiYehuda (2:30). It is apparent that carrying parasols on Shabbat in Pressburg was somewhat common (it was all the rage in Europe); Hatam Sofer concludes by saying that even if it is better to be stringent, there is no reason to make a big fuss over the issue.

Adding a few data points sharpens the picture:

  1. Hatam Sofer became the rabbi of Pressburg in 1806.
  2. Even though R. Yehezkel Landau, the author of Noda BiYehudah and the greatest posek in central Europe in his time, passed away in 1793, the second volume of his responsa was not published until 1811.
  3. In a letter dated Tuesday of Parashat Tetzaveh of 5572 (February 22, 1812), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanow wrote to his hasid, Haim Tzartlis, in Mád, Hungary. In it R. Mendel criticizes the decadence of the westernizing Oberlanders, singling out three practices: the adoption of non-Jewish styles of clothing by Jewish women, carrying parasols on Shabbat, and wearing shirts that button left-over-right instead of right-over-left. R. Mendel instructs his disciple to admonish the townsfolk for this, and adds that if they won’t listen to a Polish rabbi, he should contact the rabbis of Alt-Ofen (Obuda, now part of Budapest) and Pressburg (the two largest communities in Western Hungary at the time), who will surely sympathize with his plight.

We now have a tight little story. Hatam Sofer becomes the rav of a prominent community in 1806, when he was 44 years old, just entering his prime. He sees that the locals carry parasols on Shabbat but does not admonish them for it. A few years later, volume 2 of Noda BiYehudah appears and suggests that this prevalent practice, which the rabbi tolerated if he didn’t approve it, constitutes a bona fide violation of the laws of Shabbat. Another year passes, and word reaches Pressburg that in the east there is opposition to parasols on the grounds that they are an affront to the dignity of Shabbat. Finally, after another year, Hatam Sofer pens a “responsum” (to no one) that explicitly fends off the halakhic argument of the (empiricist, anti-Hasidic) Noda BiYehudah and may implicitly take issue with the criticisms of the Rimanover.

Aside from presenting Hatam Sofer as a preserver of custom and tradition–even lenient ones–in the face of both new empiricist readings and reactionary movements from the east, thus throwing a monkey-wrench into the accepted view of Hatam Sofer as a zealot, we can ask how this story fits into the larger story of Hatam Sofer’s career. Maoz Kahana’s magnificent book on Noda BiYehudah and Hatam Sofer addresses the transition from the approach of the former to that of the latter and lays out the Hatam Sofer’s conscious and sustained “course correction” to the approach of Noda BiYehudah (he does not address the parasol in the book). How does this small story of Hatam Sofer “punching up” against the giant of the previous generation fit into the larger story of Hatam Sofer’s own career? Is it evidence of Hatam Sofer coming into his own?

Let us look at the data to see how it can help us and what its limitations are. It should be noted that, in the case of Hatam Sofer (unlike R. Feinstein), pretty much everything he wrote has been published by now, so unless we know of material that has gone missing, these are the entirety of his responsa. He meticulously recorded his correspondence (and lots more) in notebooks. Moreover, the publication of Hatam Sofer’s responsa began only after his death in 1839, so the idea of publishing responsa to establish authority, like R. Feinstein did, is off the table. Finally, we do not include piskei din, many of which are published in responsa volumes, in this analysis. While piskei din are valuable in their own right, they should be treated as a distinct genre. A rabbinical court often had real, albeit limited, jurisdiction; rabbis, in cases where litigants had no choice but to appear before them, exercised legal authority, not charismatic authority.

The initial temptation is to look at each year in isolation; doing so, we notice a spike in 1814. This gives rise to a theory: Perhaps the parasol responsum is not alone. Perhaps Hatam Sofer systematically reviewed the volume 2 of Noda BiYehudah and wrote responsa wherever he takes issue. That is, the 1814 spike seems to have a “dig here” sign on it.

I tested that hypothesis, and it is wrong. There are dozens of places where Hatam Sofer disagrees with rulings in Noda BiYehudah II, but they are distributed all across the years after 1811.

More fundamentally, though, the spike is not such an outlier. It pales in comparison to the spike we saw in R. Feinstein’s responsa in the late 1950s. It turns out that there’s no “dig here” sign there after all. That does not mean that there is no reason for the year to year spikes and dips, but that there is not necessarily a reason, or that the reasons, whatever they are, only interfere with our attempt to understand his career.

To illustrate, we can compare two dips: the one in 1806-7 and the one in 1809. We can hypothesize that the dip in 1809 is almost certainly related to the fact that Pressburg was besieged and conquered by Napoleon in that year. Indeed, Hatam Sofer wrote an account of the siege and the hardships endured by the community then. This dip does not tell us much about who was and was not writing to Hatam Sofer, and where his sphere of influence extended, because of Napoleon’s interference. The story of 1809 is interesting and significant, but the statistical perspective tells us to discount the dip as evidence of stagnation in Hatam Sofer’s career.

The lull of 1806-7, in contrast, may have a reason that relates specifically to his career. As noted, these years correspond to the beginning of his tenure in Pressburg. His duties in a new and much larger community could have kept him busier and more focused on the needs of the local community, at least at the beginning.

One bit of evidence that may support this hypothesis is that in 1808, when Hatam Sofer’s responsa-writing returns to normal, his sphere of influence is noticeably wider.

The geographical spread of Hatam Sofer’s responsa from 1798-1807
Geographical spread of Hatam Sofer’s responsa from 1798-1808.

 

 

 

 

 

So even though the dip of 1806-7 may be noise, it might not be. It might actually tell us something about the significance of the move to Pressburg in establishing him as a regional authority.

Hatam Sofer & EMAs
Hatam Sofer & EMAs

The reason we look at exponential moving average (EMA) is because it provides a good balance between separating signal from noise and responding to changes (a simple moving average is a little too sluggish). Looking at the 10-year exponential moving average (the blue line), we can see major transition periods from 1798-1804 and 1809-1815. This, too, corresponds roughly with the move from Mattersdorf to Pressburg and with Hatam Sofer entering the prime of his career.

In this post, we looked at a relatively small snapshot of Hatam Sofer’s career, roughly from 1804-1814. We demonstrated how the historical setting can help us understand an individual responsum, the heart of the enterprise of studying rabbinic works. We also showed that it is very difficult and sometimes downright silly to draw broad conclusions from these wonderfully idiosyncratic individual examples that populate the larger corpus of responsa. Statistical tools like EMA can be far more helpful with the broad brush strokes.

The thing is, we need both the microhistories of individual responsa as well as the broad brush strokes in order to get at a more complete picture. And we need good tools to show us the signs that say “dig here”. Our hope is that scholars use the tools we are developing to figure out where to dig, to hypothesize, and to test their explanations.