By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
On two occasions on the 2nd of Adar, in 1813 and 1830, Chatam Sofer wrote letters to explain his resistance to getting involved in a far off dispute. Instead of taking them chronologically, I will follow the order of his publishing them. The first, in his Responsa 1 (Orach Chayim); 13, was addressed to the chief rabbi of a certain region, who wanted to bequeath the position to his son.
Chiding a Questioner
Chatam Sofer answers in two parts, the first of which takes the man to task for approaching him. The man had apparently asked for testimony that Judaism gives a son preference in replacing his father (as long as the son is qualified, but that is a standard too loose to be useful). Chatam Sofer says, first, that he could not consider acceding to the request unless he was asked by all the parties to the dispute for an actual halachic responsum (which he considers unlikely, since why would the rabbis of that region turn to him); the non-Jewish government asked his opinion of the halachah (again, unlikely); or that this rabbi receive a ruling from someone more involved in the case that he needs to gather testimonies.
In that last possibility, Chatam Sofer is most explicit that he is seeking to avoid having others think he is mixing in to an argument that is not his business. That also explains his confidence that the rabbis of that other region would not all turn to him. At first glance, I think: why wouldn’t they turn to him, he’s the Chatam Sofer? I suggest he was saying it this way to make clear to his questioner that this is not an issue that requires significant outside input.
Disappointing his Clientele
Since this man has approached him, however, he shares his view, and it’s not the one the man wanted. He says that he’s had similar cases locally, and has always ruled that the son has no special claim to succeed the father—if he’s the best candidate, he should get it, if not, not. He limits that to positions that center fully around Torah—I won’t go into the whole discussion, but positions that have an element of royalty to them (even such as being head of the Sanhedrin, in a time when the political leadership of the people had been taken from the House of David), or of communal service (so he, e.g., says that the town or shul rabbinate in his time might be a bequeathable position, since it is not solely about teaching Torah), are the ones where Rema and Rambam ruled that if the son is qualified, he should take the job. A job that solely involves the teaching of Torah would not, especially since people need to have a teacher of Torah they find comfortable.
In the situation about which he was being asked, the appointment was to be regional chief rabbi, which elevates the appointee ex officio above all the other rabbis, requiring them to consult with him on policy issues. For Chatam Sofer to decide who was or was not greater would be an intolerable insult to the other rabbis. To reach a determination, therefore, requires moderation and great wisdom.
Not Getting Involved, at Greater Length
In 4 (Even haEzer 2); 136, Chatam Sofer again resists ruling on a case, but this time goes into more of a discussion. The circumstances are not made fully clear up front and I think it’s more interesting to let the underlying facts reveal themselves as we go along.
The first step is that this was a case that had been dealt with by those whom Chatam Sofer esteemed, and who had since passed away. The responsum starts, therefore, with a disclaimer that he cannot imagine he would find a way to let a woman– who claimed she had word her husband had passed away– remarry if so many important Torah scholars had reviewed her case without finding such room.
Chatam Sofer then discusses how well we have to check out such claims. Some sources (such as Rema to Even haEzer 17;8) seem to imply that a court need not question the witness who told a woman her husband had passed away, even if that witness is readily available. As long as the woman believed the witness, and the court believed that she had heard this from a witness, she could remarry.
Chatam Sofer disagrees, and thinks that the sources upon which Rema based himself were only referring to cases where the witness wasn’t around to be questioned. He does note that if the witness tells the woman one story and then tells the court another story, the woman has the right to ignore the second story and assume she is allowed to remarry (since witnesses, in halachah, are not allowed to recant).
Why Are Women So Readily Believed About the Deaths of Their Husbands?
Until that point, the case is relatively straightforward, and raises an interesting but somewhat technical question of the extent to which we believe what’s called an ed mi-pi ed, a person reporting what a witness said, in the case of allowing widows to remarry.
Now is where the story gets more humanly interesting. Even if we ordinarily would believe the woman without asking the witness for testimony, Chatam Sofer says, that’s for one of two reasons: either we assume that women are generally careful before they remarry (because, e.g., it’s the kind of a false story that’s likely to end up coming out, when the first husband comes back) or because the consequences are so serious—if the first husband does come back, the woman who has remarried can neither return to her first husband nor stay with the second one, and any children from the second marriage are mamzerim.
In this case, we now find out, the woman had already remarried once, and been separated from that husband by a beit din, a court. To be clear: there is one standard in halachah for ascertaining that a man has passed away and his wife is permitted to marry. There is a lower standard for insisting on forcing a woman who chose to remarry anyway to leave her second husband. If the court separated her, that means they felt she really had no basis for assuming her husband was dead.
Her having done so, Chatam Sofer says, makes it difficult now to believe her, because she has shown her disregard for both worries the Gemara had given as supporting her believability—she had gotten remarried without regard to the consequences. Since he can’t see any way to believer her, he advises that she go to the place where she has heard he died, since there she can likely find two witnesses to the events, and two witnesses establish fact in halachah.
The Merry Widow was the Wife of a Torah Scholar
The surprises are not done. Until this point, we thought the responsum was about the complications of determining the death of a man who has gone missing, when the widow is certain he has died. Now, at the end of the responsum, Chatam Sofer returns to the chiding mode we saw in the first one we saw today, suggesting to his correspondent that he has not been handling himself well.
The correspondent, we now find out, has taken possession of the woman’s clothing (presumably, because they are part of the missing husband’s estate, and he is the executor; since, in his view, she abandoned the missing husband improperly, he can withhold financial support), leaving her to walk around in tatters.
Chatam Sofer notes that in such situations, we are supposed to find compromises, not stand on the letter of the law, especially since (wait for it), the woman is the wife of a talmid hacham, a Torah scholar! Meaning, the woman who a few lines ago seemed to be almost an adulteress or worse for her rush to remarry, we now find out, is struggling with the loss of her first husband, a recognized Torah scholar. And, Chatam Sofer says, as the presumed widow of a Torah scholar, she deserves to be treated with respect, if only for the sake of the deceased’s memory.
If the two sides insist on a court case instead of a compromise, they can both write to him (instead, as he admonishes the respondent, of sending him all his arguments without any counterbalancing ones from the other side), and he will decide it for them.
Two interesting cases where Chatam Sofer wished to be less involved, not more, where he thought the halachic route was less the one to go than one that found compromise and built peace among his fellow Jews. A timely message for Adar and Purim, when Jews also found and seek to foster national unity.