Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not to touch Mendelssohn's books? Inspirational. Not to wear a sheitel? Not so inspirational.

An important external hard drive of mine may have died. This is bad news for me. So posting may be a little sparse. Or maybe not. We'll see what happens.

The Chasam Sofer, like many Jews, wrote a so-called Ethical Will. An Ethical Will is like a Last Will and Testament, only it does not focus on worldly possessions. Instead it gives instruction to family or disciples. The Chasam Sofer's ethical well (henceforth "Testament") contained the following clause:

בנותי וכלותי השמרו לכם חלילה וחלילה לגלות טפח מבשרכם ע"י קיצורת המלבושים כנהוג ח"ו לא תהיה זאת בגבול ביתי ומכ"ש שתזהרו מריעות נשים רעות שמוציאים אפילו שער א' חוץ וגם בפאה נכרית אני אוסרכם איסור גמור
"My daughters and daughters-in-law, guard yourself lest you, God forbid, reveal a handsbreadth of your skin in revealing dresses, which are popular, God forbid. . . . and I also forbid you to wear a wig, with a total prohibition."

The Chasam Sofer's ethical will, addressed to his family (it begins, "My sons, daughters, children-in-law, and grandchildren, listen [to my words] and live . . ."], was read at his funeral before a large public. Thus, although it is addressed to his family, it was clearly seen by those close to him (= whomever was responsible for the proceedings of the funeral) as something for the public to hear, if not heed. The contents were not only read publicly, but reported only a month later in the Israelitische Annalen #45, November 8, 1839, pg. 354.

In this Testament he instructed his family not to join with Reformers and not to read books by Moses Mendelssohn. [Instead?] it is most important to study and teach your children Tanach with Rashi, and Torah with Ramban. Next he asks them to remain firm in their principles even in the face of hunger and poverty. The women [in the family] should read nothing but books printed in Judeo-German, and only works based on Aggadah. None may attend the theater. No one should grow proud or haughty. They should study Torah diligently, and teach it publicly. They should not change their name, language or clothing, that is, not to imitate the ways of Gentiles. Then he tells them not to be anxious because he has not left them wealth, for God will have mercy on them and provide for them. Next, not to use the Torah as a means of glorifying themselves, or a means for making money. They should not become a traveling Maggid for pay - they should stay in their place. Finally, do not say that times have changed. We have an old Father - God - who does not and will not change.

Also at his funeral, another Testament addressed to the *community* of Pressburg, was read. This one contained one appendix addressed to the females of his family, and another to the males of his family and his students. This second part, asked his community to never appoint a rabbi who breeches tradition, and not to allow the rabbinical post to remain vacant more than two years. It also asks them to appoint a humble man, and to continue funding Torah studies in the same manner as they always have.

The next section, with which I began this post, addressed to the women in his family, specifically asks that they dress modestly, specifically that they never let a hair on their head show, and that they must not wear a wig.

Then his sons and students are addressed, and they are asked to be careful to keep his yeshiva running as it always has, and he expresses the preference that his son Avraham Shmuel Binyamin be officially appointed its rosh yeshiva - and this led to his appointment as rabbi of Pressburg at the funeral itself!

In 1860 the complete will was published by R. Akiva Yoseph Schlesinger, who was then in his early 20s, with a Yiddish translation in the beginning of his book Naar Ivri, and has been reprinted in whole and part many, many times since. Note the "הָאארשַייטֶל."

Several years later Schlesinger reprinted the will with a very lengthy commentary, transforming a text of a few paragraphs - it takes up 8 pages, including the Yiddish translation in Naar Ivri - into a book of about 150 pages. In the introduction, he writes that when he was a yeshiva student, a friend asked him why he refrains from using Mendelssohn's Chumash. Citing the will, the friend pointed out that it is only for the Chasam Sofer's family. Schlesinger replied that allthough he knows full well that the Chasam Sofer's Testament is addressed to his family, he nevertheless is glad to consider himself bound to follow its commands. Why? He reasons that surely the Chasam Sofer loved his family and was concerned for their souls, and this is what he advises them to do. Doesn't Schlesinger love himself? If so, wouldn't he be sensible to follow the prescriptions of the Chasam Sofer for those whom he loved?

In any case, agree or disagree with this logic, it seems clear that the bulk (and frankly, the best part) of the will is addressed solely to his own family, with a small part addressed to his community. Nevertheless, his instructions to his family were also promulgated in a most public fashion.

Through Artscroll, Rabbi Moshe Bamberger published a very interesting book called Great Jewish Letters: A Collection of Classic and Inspirational Writings of Torah Personalities. This book contains Bamberger's translations of all or part of many letters, drawn from Geonic to contemporary times. The section called Ethical Wills contains 9 specimens, the first one by the Ramban, and the next nine from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

On page 38-40 the Chasam Sofer's will appears, more specifically, only the first part. In a way that's understandable. Even though the second part is actually addressed partly to the public, the first part is where the meat is. The second part, even though it contains spiritual matters, is basically business. For the Chasam Sofer, the proper way of appointing a rabbi is business; the proper way of maintaining his yeshiva is business; the modest dress of the female Schreibers is business. So in that sense I can understand why it only translated the first part of the will. Nevertheless, one does notice that the second part forbids in the strongest possible terms the women from wearing sheitlach. So my conspiracy theory is this: Not to touch Mendelssohn's books? Inspirational. Not to wear a sheitel? Not so inspirational.


  1. Nothing about the ספרי חמד variation on ספרי רמ"ד?

    I don't know the current scholarly consensus, but here's a footnoted המעיין (שעלבים)‏ article that discusses the question:

    and here's a Sefarim Ve'Sofrim thread discussing the המעיין article:

  2. Nah, that's been done to death.

    Or, at least not today.

    For what its worth, we can see that one month later it was reported "Die buecher des R. Mose aus Dessau ruehret nicht an."

  3. another case of creative deletion.

    Robinson Crusoe-too oifgekelert
    A complete ban on shaitels of any kind-not oifgeklert enough. Bottom line: If you don't fit the mold Artscroll will cut you down to size.

  4. Intresante. The debate about ethical wills applying so tp speak to those outside the family is also found with the will of Rav Yehuda Hacahssid. [Fred's fave part: if you see a cannibal zombie witch, put dirt in its mouth.]

    Rabbi Jack Riemer put out a pretty good collection of ethical wills about 15-20 years ago.

    Sorry to learn about your hard drive. It was a good worker, your hard drive. It will be missed.

  5. I like the contrast between the Mendelssohn line and the sheitel. Within Orthodoxy Mendelssohn has been almost completely exorcised in the 165 years since this will was written. Most people probably don't even understand why he mentions it, such a davar poshut (and this is of course assuming that he meant Remad and not Chemed). But the fact that it is there shows the actual situation, which was that Mendelssohn was in "need" of exorcising. By contrast, it's hard for most people to understand the vehemence against the sheitel.

    As for my hard drive, it was my second brain. So that's not good.

  6. So sorry to hear. Perhaps you missed this post.

    this post

  7. Remad and chemad? Please explain.

  8. Argh. I just lost a lengthy comment.

    Basically, there is some doubt as to whether or not the key word is רמד or חמד, the reason for the ambiguity being the graphic similarity of ר and ח in the Ashkenazic semicursive (both can look very much like an upside down u). If it's a resh then it says sifrei remad, which mean Mendelssohn's books. If it's a ches then it says sifrei chemed, which means novels or maybe even romance novels.

    The document itself appears to support the reading of chemed, since if you look at it (or pictures, since I think the only thing which exists are photos of the original, and written *copies*) it actually seems to say chemed. However, it is immediately noticeable that the ches in this word looks a little different from all the other cheses in the document, which leads one to believe that it was altered by hand. On the other hand, this style ches actually matches an earlier hand writing of the Chasam Sofer of 20 years earlier, which makes it conceivable that he really did write it as a ches.

    Then there is the question of the simanim above the word, which makes it look like an acronym, which of course means that it must be Remad. Possible response: simanim were not only used for acronyms. There's loads of evidence that in earlier times they were used the way we italicize, for example. See the loazim in Rashi, and there are numerous examples right on through the 19th century.

    Then the issue gets into questions regarding testimony by his own children and students, some of whom supported one reading and some the other. It also gets into questions of how reliable such testimony is, since it comes secondhand.

    Then it gets into semantics, like the fact that "tishlechu yad" rhymes with "sifrei remad" but not with "sifrei chemed. But who says the Chasam Sofer couldn't possibly make a mistake? (Plenty of people, but that's not the point.) Some people also consider the idea that it is speaking about novels to come way out of left field - although there is some second hand testimony that one of his daughters read novels. Furthermore, in the next clause he counsels to read Rashi and Ramban, so it seems like "sifrei (r)emad" are in contrast to that. i.e., don't read the Beur, but read Rashi and Ramban.

    But, you can make the case that novels actually make sense, as later in the will he commands the females to read only works in Yiddish Teitsch script, based on Aggadah. I'm not sure if I can make a good case for the order of "sifrei chemed" in this case, but it's not really out of left field entirely.

    If you're interested in more on this topic that has been done over, and over, and over please email me. db min 9 @ a o l . com

  9. Thank you for that explanation. If there are other places you will point me to, to avoid having to write further on the subject, that is fine too!

  10. Student V: See the links in my earlier comment.



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