Saturday, 16 November 2019

How the Bratislava grave
of Chatam Sofer became
a place for Jewish pilgrims

The grave of Chatam Sofer is one of the holiest pilgrim sites in Europe for Orthodox Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Bratislava last week, I spent some time visiting the Chatam Sofer Memorial, a unique Jewish heritage site. This is revered by many Orthodox Jews as the most sacred burial ground and place of pilgrimage in Europe.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial is the sole remaining part of the centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a nearby tunnel was constructed.

Only the most important section of the cemetery, with 23 graves surrounding the Chatam Sofer’s tomb, was preserved as an underground compound.

However, the Chatam Sofer Memorial should not be visited as a museum, and the site is only accessible by special arrangement through the Jewish community in Bratislava with the understanding that visitors are intending to pray and are pilgrims.

This is a Jewish burial shrine erected over the graves of prominent rabbis and scholars who are highly esteemed in Jewish tradition. The memorial is regularly visited by Orthodox Jewish pilgrims from around the world.

But who was the Chatam Sofer?

Rabbi Moses or Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), a renowned rabbi and scholar, is known as the Chatam Sofer … an image in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Rabbi Moses or Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), a renowned rabbi and scholar, is known as the Chatam Sofer (‘Seal of the Scribe’), an acronym for Chiddushei Toiras Moishe Sofer.

He was a teacher to thousands and a powerful opponent of the Reform movement in Judaism, which was attracting many people from Jewish communities in the Austrian Empire and beyond in the early 19th century. As the Chief Rabbi of Bratislava, then known as Pressburg, he maintained a strong Orthodox Jewish perspective through communal life, first-class education, and uncompromising opposition to Reform and radical change.

He was born in Frankfurt am Main on 26 September 1762 (7 Tishrei 5523). He studied at the yeshiva or rabbinical school in Mainz and later became a student of Rabbi Nathan Adler in Frankfurt.

He left Frankfurt in 1782 for Straznice, now in the Czech Republic, and there he became head of the local yeshiva and married his first wife, Sarah Yerwitz.

Following their engagement, Rabbi Sofer’s family learned that Sarah was a widow who did not have children with her first husband. His family pressed him to break the engagement. Rabbi Sofer wrote to his teacher Rabbi Adler for advice but no response was received before the wedding date. Rabbi Sofer took this as a heavenly sign that the wedding should take place and married Sarah over his family’s objections.

Rabbi Sofer served as rabbi in Prostejov, now in the Czech Republic, from 1794, and in Mattersdorf, now Mattersburg in Austria, from 1796. He accepted an invitation of the Jewish community of Pressburg – Bratislava – in 1806 to become its Chief Rabbi. He and his family lived at the end of Zamocka Street, where the Hotel Ibis now stands.

The graves of rabbis buried but Chatam Sofer in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Rabbi Sofer remained in Bratislava for 33 years. There he served as av beth din or chief judge of the rabbinical court, and he became one of the most respected authorities in halakha (Jewish law).

The Chatam Sofer’s yeshiva in Bratislava became one of the most prominent centres of traditional Jewish learning in Europe. With 400 students at its peak, it was the largest yeshiva since Babylonian times.

In Hungary alone, the Chatam Sofer counted about 100 rabbis as his disciples. They went on to defend the ideological position of their charismatic teacher.

He was strictly orthodox, and spearheaded the traditionalist response to the modernising changes in Jewish society known as haskalah (‘enlightenment’).

He expected that removing anti-Jewish legal barriers, civil emancipation and the acculturation of Jews would lead to their assimilation, which he dreaded. His motto, He-chadash asur min ha-Torah (‘the new is prohibited by the Torah’), summarised his ideological position, in which he rejected the introduction of changes into Judaism.

This became a core principle of what became known as Orthodox Judaism, and the Chatam Sofer is considered one of the founding fathers of Orthodox Judaism.

After his first wife Sarah died childless, the Chatam Sofer married his second wife Sarah in 1812. She was the widowed daughter of Rabbi Akiva Eger of Posen (Poznan). They were the parents of 10 children, three sons and seven daughters.

The Chatam Sofer died on 3 October 1839 (25 Tishrei 5600). He was succeeded as Chief Rabbi of Pressburg (Bratislava) by his eldest son, Abraham Samuel Benjamin Schreiber (1815-1871), known as the Ketav Sofer, and was later followed by his grandson Simcha Bunim Schreiber (1842-1906), known as the Shevet Sofer, and great-grandson Akiva Schreiber (1878–1959), the Da’at Sofer, the last of the family to serve as rabbi in Bratislava.

The Chatam Sofer published very little during his lifetime. His posthumously published works include about 1,200 responsa or rabbinical rulings, novellae on the Talmud, sermons, biblical and liturgical commentaries, and religious poetry. He is often cited as an authority in Orthodox Jewish scholarship, and many of his responsa are required reading for many candidates for semicha or rabbinic ordination.

His Torah chiddushim or original Torah insights inspired a new approach to rabbinic commentary, and some editions of the Talmud contain his emendations and additions.

His second son, Rabbi Simon Schreiber Shimon Sofer (1820-1883) was the Chief Rabbi of Mattersdorf and later the Chief Rabbi of Kraków. He founded the Machzikei Hadass organisation with the Chassidic Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach of Belz in 1871.

This was the first effort of Haredi Jews in Europe to create a political party. It was part of the developing identification of the traditional Orthodoxy as a self-defined group and a force among Orthodox Jews to challenge the rising modernising forces among Galician Jewry. This organisation has given its name to the Machzikei Hadass Synagogue at Rathmore Villas in Terenure, Dublin.

Meanwhile, the Pressburg Yeshiva became the most influential yeshiva in Central Europe, training hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry. The yeshiva continued to function until World War II, but was relocated to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Chatham Sofer’s great-grandson, Rabbi Akiva Sofer.

The cemetery where the Chatam Sofer is buried dates back to the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

How did the grave of the Chatam Sofer in Bratislava become such a unique site?

The cemetery where the Chatam Sofer is buried dates back to the 17th century, when Jews were allowed to settle below the slopes of Bratislava Castle on the estate of Count Pálffy and his family. The cemetery served as the burial place of the Bratislava Jewish community until 1847.

After 1847, the Jewish community used the Orthodox and Neolog cemetery, on Zizkova Street nearby. The Old Cemetery was well maintained until 1942-1943, when it was demolished during the construction of a tunnel. Most of the graves were exhumed and reburied at the Orthodox cemetery in a communal grave behind the beit tahara.

Only the most precious section of the cemetery, where famous Bratislava rabbis were buried – 23 graves surrounding the Chatam Sofer’s tomb – was preserved on the original site.

This section was enclosed by a concrete shell and covered with a concrete roof. The site became an underground compound, and some people in Bratislava began calling this the Chatam Sofer Mausoleum. Even during the Communist era, it was visited by Orthodox pilgrims and other Jews.

For the people of Bratislava, the site became a mysterious Jewish presence during a period when Jewish heritage was not valued by the authorities and two synagogues in Bratislava and the entire old Jewish neighbourhood were razed to the ground.

The city tramline was built in 1982 and a tram stop was established over the compound.

After decades of neglect, the whole site was redeveloped in 2000-2002, and the gravestones were restored. The redevelopment project was initiated by the New York-based International Committee for the Preservation of Gravesites of Gaonai Pressburg, and was supported by the Mayor and Municipality of Bratislava.

Access to the memorial is along a raised platform, elevated above the cemetery grounds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The work on the project entailed great sensitivity, as special rules apply to Jewish cemeteries. The municipality relocated the tram tracks, and the former cemetery compound was delineated and later fenced off.

The architect Martin Kvasnica designed a striking new complex that adheres to the strict requirements of the halakha (Jewish law) as well as to the highest standards of contemporary architecture.

A major challenge was providing an access for the kohanim or cohens, the descendants of Temple priests, who are prohibited from visiting a cemetery by Jewish law. To resolve this, visitors access the site along a raised platform, which is elevated above the cemetery grounds. After passing through an evocative black entry corridor structure, they enter the visitors’ hall and then the prayer hall for kohanim.

Only then can visitors descend into the main cemetery space, with the graves of the Chatam Sofer and the other prominent rabbis. Glass plates symbolising matzevot or gravestones lost in the destruction of the cemetery are visible in the interior and also mark the memorial compound from the outside. They are reminders that the site is a Jewish cemetery, although it disappeared in the 20th century, when much of Jewish civilisation was destroyed.

The prayer hall allows kohanim to pray at the graves of the rabbis of Bratislava, including Chatam Sofer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Chatam Sofer Memorial is owned by the Bratislava Jewish Community and is part of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial includes 23 graves. The prominent rabbis of Bratislava buried here include:

Mordechai Mochiach (d 1729)
Moshe ben Meir Charif of Lemberg (d 1758)
Akiba Eger the Elder (ca 1720-1758)
Yitzak Halevi Landau of Dukla (d 1762)
Meir ben Saul Barby of Halberstadt (ca 1725-1789)
Meshulam ben Shimson Igra of Tysmenitsa (1742-1801)
Moshe Schreiber – the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839)
Daniel Prostitz Steinschneider (1759-1846)

Prayer books in the prayer hall emphasise that this is a place of prayer and pilgrimage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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