How Chatam Sofer Spent 25 Tevet

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

How Chatam Sofer Spent 25 Tevet on Five Years of His Life

(You can hear a half-hour audio version of this, thanks to

There’s no particular reason a responsum should exist for every possible calendar day, although the length of Jewish history and wealth of the responsa literature generally means I generally get to choose from more than one. That’s true despite my added requirement that it be short enough that I can communicate it in about half an hour of audio, 1500 words in writing. Occasionally, I have to scramble a bit.

For the 25th of Tevet, I found five short responsa of Chatam Sofer’s. I find something attractive about that, as if we’re getting a snapshot of his life, how he spent his 25 Tevet across the years.

5570—A Widow’s Will

Chatam Sofer 5; Choshen Mishpat 135, dated 25 Tevet 5570 (which was January 1, 1810, as it happens) dealt with a widow who remarried and then passed away not a year into that marriage. Much of her property was supposed to go to her first husband’s heirs, but she left a will giving gifts to other people (Torah scholars who would study in her memory, friends and relatives, her second husband).

Among her possessions was a loan owed by a certain non-Jew, who withheld payment, because he claimed that money should go to the first husband’s heirs. The second husband wants that loss to be spread throughout the estate, to be borne proportionately among all the designees of gifts.

A Percentage or an Amount

Those designees, of course, claim she gifted them a certain amount of money, not a percentage of the estate, and that the widower should get only whatever is left over after. [I’m not sure it can be said enough that all these claimants might honestly believe their claims—while each side does make the claim that serves its interests, that does not necessarily indicate dishonesty.

The husband might sincerely think the deceased named amounts of money based on her view of the size of the estate, and would have adjusted the will had she known what the non-Jew would do, and the other people might sincerely believe she meant to give them the amount, and expected her widower to make do with the rest.]

Chatam Sofer is certain the Torah scholars do not lose anything, I think because he thinks they’re providing a service in learning in her memory. I’m skipping his sources to get to the conclusion, which is that even if the woman specified an amount of money, it’s still more similar to where she promised wine that went bad, meaning they all suffer the loss together.

To figure out how much to give out, the court needs to know the size of the estate minus that loan. Since only the widower knows, he’ll have to take an oath about that, and then they’ll each lose proportionally.

5582, Finding a Man’s Name for a Get

Shu”t Chatam Sofer 4; Even Haezer 2; 41, 25 Tevet 5582 (1822), is about a man who abandoned his wife and five children for a maid. In the ketubbah he wrote to this maid, he gave a different father’s name than the one by which he had always been known. When the court caught him and dragged him back to town (to live up to his responsibilities to his first family), he explained that he usually used the name of his mother’s employer at the time he was born.

She had been unmarried when she got pregnant, and he grew up in the home of this wealthy and generous man. For this ketubbah, however, he had used his biological father’s name.

The rabbi who had turned to Chatam Sofer wanted to know whether he could rely on this to write the man’s name in the get (yes, shockingly, the first wife wanted a divorce). An investigation had corroborated his story, that his mother had worked for this wealthy man, and while working there had become pregnant. The wealthy man’s children did not recognize the name the mother gave for who had impregnated her, but an old-time servant did remember that there had once been such a man in the household, who was fired and expelled for stealing [all this gives us a tiny bit more sympathy for the man, product of a fairly messed-up relationship, although we could also argue that his early life should have taught him to be more faithful than his father and mother, since he knew the pain their dalliance caused].

Do We Need Parents’ Name in a Get?

Chatam Sofer points out that the requirement to write a father’s name in a get is not itself clear. Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 129;9 validated a get that mentioned only the husband and wife’s names, and recommended leaving out fathers’ names in cases of uncertain parentage. Rosh thought names were only so we can be sure we know who is being referenced, so that if it’s clear enough without the fathers’ names, there’s no need to include them.

That position is by far not universal—Shulchan Aruch himself recommended using the name of Avraham for converts, which means we prefer having a name. Chatam Soferthinks that custom has made it necessary to include names, although he recognizes that in this case it will cause more rather than less confusion, since this man had been known by the name of the wealthy man in whose home he was raised.

Get Pashut, an important book about the laws of gittin, suggested using the mother’s name, despite the fact that it implies that we do not know this man’s father; since we do in fact know who his father was, we might worry that people who read the get will think it’s written by some other man who did not know who his father was.

Chatam Sofer’s solution is to announce in shul, three times, that this man will no longer be known by his putative father’s name, but by his mother’s. That effectively uproots the old name, and we can then treat this man as someone known only by his mother’s name.

5587—Switching Tzedakah Funds

Shu”t Chatam Sofer 6; Likkutim 27, 25 Tevet 5587 (1827) wanted to know whether money donated for the charity of R. Meir ba’al HaNes could be used instead for the pressing needs of local poor. Changing funds already donated presents a problem in that the intended recipient might have already acquired rights to those monies [halachahholds that zachin le-adam she-lo be-fanav, we can secure benefits on behalf of others even if they’re not here; charity monies might therefore have immediately become owned by the intended recipients, and then there’s no way to change it].

Maharik and Maharit allowed diverting money not raised for specific poor. They said the original poor encompassed by the general gift may have since become wealthy, died, or otherwise lost their stake in the funds. But when the money was directed to the poor of Israel, it’s unlikely all of them became wealthy or passed away since the donation.

Maharit’s case differed in other details we do not have space to discuss, but I will mention that Chatam Sofer says it’s less likely that all the poor of Israel left (since it’s prohibited) than it is that all the poor of Yerushalayim left for other places within Israel, even though that, too, is not allowed. (We once saw Tzitz Eliezer say that as well, to a doctor who wanted to move from the Old City to Efrat).

What saves the day is that this money was not collected for the poor of Israel, it was donated for the merit of the soul of R. Meir (I think because he is thought to have protective powers for those who donate in his memory). The man who collected the money had originally used it to light a candle in R. Meir’s memory, until some people from Israel convinced him it would be better to send the money to the poor.

He agreed, then realized those people took the money themselves. He had held on to seven years’ donations, waiting to find someone reliable to bring it to Israel. That means the poor of Israel never really acquired it, and opens the door to say that giving it to local poor is the kind of change donors always allowed. Chatam Sofer shows that we allow donations to be used for some more valuable cause, as long as there were no specific recipients who implicitly took possession.

That’s especially true in this case, because were the government to get wind of this, they’d prohibit expatriating any money to Israel. We can safely assume the poor of Israel prefer ceding some of the money coming to them to losing it all to a government’s decree. The seven years this man had waited also means the poor of Israel could not have expected these monies imminently.

Chatam Sofer therefore recommends they leave a respectable portion for the poor of Israel, to be sent when they find the right person, and use the rest for worthy local poor, especially Torah scholars (since otherwise, we might be taking money that would have gone to Torah scholars in Israel and using it for non-Torah scholars outside of Israel, a double whammy).

5592—Claims a Wife Had Died

On 25 Tevet 5592 (1832), Shu”t Chatam Sofer 3; Even HaEzer 2, Chatam Sofer dealt with a man whose wife had lost her mind. He had taken her to another city for treatment, and now (back in his home town) had heard she had passed away, with one witness to ratify that claim.

Usually, we follow Beit Shemuel, that once we know a man is married, one witness is not enough to allow him to remarry, given that Cherem Rabbenu Gershom prohibited men from marrying more than one wife.  Chatam Sofer knows of reasons to allow him to remarry—we usually rely on one witness to free spouses; second, once this woman lost her mind, the man could secure a heter me’ah rabbanim, permission from a hundred rabbis to take a second wife after depositing a get and the ketubbah payment for her, should she recover; third, we know where he left her for treatment, so we could verify his claim (although that would apparently take more time and expense than they were comfortably able to expend).

But those last two also show that were this man only willing to spend the time and money, he could verify the news more fully, so Chatam Sofer feels uncomfortable ruling leniently, and recommends that they bring the question before someone else.

5596—A Pregnant Woman Sues for Support

Shu”t Chatam Sofer 4; Even HaEzer 160 takes up the case of a promiscuous woman who is now pregnant. She claims a certain man was the father, that he had promised to marry her, and to pay her for nursing the child. He denies he’s the father, let alone that he made such promises.

We might have thought he owed her money simply for having seduced her (as the Torah requires of a mefateh, a man who seduces a girl), but Chatam Sofer says that’s only if the girl is not an adult. An adult woman foregoes any such reparations when she lets herself be seduced [there’s an underlying attitude that deserves elaborating another time, that adult women are responsible for their uncoerced actions; seduction is not coercion, which opens the door to discussion of what psychological or financial pressures do or do not count as coercion].

But if we know the child is his, we do obligate him to pay child support.

As for the promise to marry her, she can insist he take an oath to back up his denial. If he refuses, he must admit to that promise, which will put him in a difficult situation: he’s said that the baby isn’t his, which makes this a case of shavya a-nafshei chaticha de-issura, that his claims obligate him even if the court rejects the claim. Since he’s said she’s nursing another man’s baby, he’ll have to wait the twenty-four months of nursing before he can fulfill his promise and marry her. That means his attempt to evade responsibility could mean he’ll have to pay child support, have to marry her, but also have to wait until she finishes nursing.

Although, Chatam Sofer adds, once that’s true, he might be able to say he never intended to wait that long when he made the promise. From the perspective of his claims, she became pregnant by someone else after he made that promise. In doing so, she made it impossible for him to fulfill his promise.

He might then become liable to pay her damages for having had relations with her, since she only accepted the embarrassment and diminished societal value of being a woman of premarital sex because she thought she was going to be married. When he finds reason not to, her foregoing the damages payments goes away as well.

A complicated situation stays complicated, depending on which levels of proof each of the sides can bring as to whether he is the father, what commitments he did or did not make, and what he owes her for his actions.

The 25th of Tevet, based on a five responsum sample, was for Chatam Sofer a day on which he dealt with wills, gittin, claims a wife had died, and claims a man promised to marry a woman. With one tzedakah question in the middle.

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