How our curiosity about a 200 year old ledger sparked broader interest about how libraries sell off items
About a month ago, a friend of HaMapah notified us via our Facebook page that a document that may be of great interest to us had just gone up for auction. I took a look, and, indeed, it’s just the sort of thing that provides the sort of information we are gathering through our Responsa Mapping project and through the Prenumeranten project. The document in question is the pinkas (ledger) of an emissary (shada”r, or sheluha de-rabanan) from the Jewish community of Tiberias to collect funds in western Europe.
I looked at the images and other files uploaded by the auctioneer, Genazym, and was utterly enthralled. The emissary, Israel Hayyim Raphael Segre, visited hundreds of communities, and each donor signed his or her name to the pinkas. Several leading rabbis signed, including R. Akiva Eger, a fact that drove the price of the item up to $200,000! This also makes the document a valuable historical resource. The study of travel, fundraising networks, and, more generally, the geography of Jewish history is in its infancy, and these sorts of pinkasim will be an important resource as this field develops.
Curiosity piqued, I went into the NLI catalogs to see what else I could find. I was somewhat surprised to find that the very manuscript on auction was already cataloged, microfilmed, digitized, and available on KTIV. Even more surprising, it had apparently been part of the JTS collection. This sparked a tweet thread:
Okay, the latest Genazym catalog dropped in the last day or two. https://t.co/1VWiBW3qkv And there's something really curious, perhaps even suspicious, about one of the most remarkable items on auction. This thread will raise the questions. I don't have answers. 1/n
The thread generated interest and discussion, and it eventually turned into an excellent article for JTA, by Asaf Shalev. It really gets into the deaccession practices of various libraries, especially JTS, and the calls for greater transparency in the process. Over the past week, lots of folks have reached out about it and commented to me about it privately, even folks without much interest in this field. In truth, I wouldn’t have found what I found without the HaMapah community.
Since the pinkas is digitized, and the list of cities visited was uploaded by Genazym, I’d like to try to map the route in full. Some of these places we have not encountered before, including southern German hamlets like the ones where my grandfather and his ancestors were born. Once we convert the PDF posted into a spreadsheet and look up the places, we will see about mapping the full route. I think that would be pretty cool.
We are delighted to be participating in this half-day conference on Monday, May 31. It will be an opportunity to showcase our projects as well as the other projects at our “home base” of the E-lijah Lab at the University of Haifa.
We are involved in two sessions. In one, Prof. Wodzinski, the lead researcher for the Prenumeranten Project, will be presenting some of our newest findings and insights, including a lot of material that we have not discussed here or in our other lectures. Prof. Avriel Bar-Levav, a leading historian of the Hebrew book, will respond.
Moshe and I will present a new facet of our research on metadata in responsa, specifically, about understanding who includes metadata and why. Responding to our presentation will be Dr. Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg, whose research focuses on the (re)organization of material in books, and especially on collections of responsa.
Last week we gave a presentation (in Hebrew) in a series called “Homrah Ve-Ru’ah” for the Hadarim Center for Israeli-Jewish Culture. It’s a basic intro to our projects, but it includes some new findings. There’s also a fun Q&A session at the end.
Several Spanish Rishonim mention a place called “Alcolea”. We misidentified it, but we think we got the right one now.
We recently got an email from reader JR Ayaso regarding our identification of the town אלקוליעא, which appears several times in Responsa Rivash, with Alcolea in Almeira Province, in Andalusia. He points out that there are several localities in Spain called “Alcolea” (prompting me to consider writing a song about all these Alcoleas, to the tune of Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh”, but I digress), and suggests that Rivash is referring to Alcolea Del Rio, on the Guadalquivir River, in Seville Province. This prompted me to take a closer look.
Looking at our map of Responsa Rivash shows that Alcolea does, indeed, seem to be a geographical outlier. Since that map will be updated, here’s a screenshot of what it looks like now:
Alcolea is the relatively large green dot southeast of Granada. Almost all of the Rivash’s early responsa were written to Aragon and Navarre. In fact, the only major outliers, we thought, were Alcolea and the dot to the northwest of it, Pinar. It turned out that Pinar was a misidentification of פינה, which is actually Pina De Ebro, in Zaragoza Province, smack dab in the middle of Aragon. So it seems that Mr. Ayaso is correct; we got the wrong Alcolea.
What about Mr. Ayaso’s suggestion that it refers to Alcolea Del Rio? Well, it’s problematic for similar reasons; Seville is even further away from Rivash’s base in Aragon. But that is only two of the 13 Alcoleas on the Spanish Wikipedia disambiguation page. [Protip: When studying such things, look at the Wikipedia page of the local language. The English disambiguation page has only 9 Alcoleas.]
Meyer Kayserling, in his Jewish Encyclopedia entry for “Alcolea”, lists Responsa Rivash as a source on the community and writes that it is in Jaen Province. Jaen is also in Andalusia, and moreover, we found no Alcolea in that province. Perhaps he is referring to one of the other Alcoleas in Andalusia, but it would remain an outlier – possible, but only after discounting other possibilities.
The Jewish Virtual Library has an entry on Alcolea, which they identify, based on Encyclopedia Judaica, with Alcolea De Cinca – in Huesca Province, right in Rivash’s home territory. Furthermore, a while ago Prof. Simcha Emanuel shared with me a monograph by Dr. Zunz, titled “Uber die in den hebräisch-jüdischen Schriften vorkommenden hispanischen Ortnamen.” It is essentially a gazetteer of Iberian place names that appear in Hebrew works. Here’s Zunz’s entry for אלקוליעא:
Zunz points out that it is mentioned in Responsa Rivash and that it has the suffix דסינקה (De Cinca!) in a responsum of Rabbenu Nissim (Ran). Page 63 in the Rome Edition of Responsa Ran corresponds to responsum #30, written in 1349-50. Two other places are mentioned in this responsum about the acceptability of testimony to the betrothal of a woman named Bella. One, as Zunz notes, is אלבליט (or אלבליט דסינקאה), and the other, noted by Leon Feldman, is Lerida (לרידה; Lleida). We have identified אלבליט דסינקאה as Albalete De Cinca, a town that is literally across the River Cinca from Alcolea De Cinca. Lleida, the largest town in the region, is about 30 miles away. Ran’s responsum is thus addressed to the rabbinic leaders of the two small towns involved in the dispute and of the larger town nearby. You can see the dispute moving up the food chain from the village to the larger town to the acknowledged posek of the country.
Rivash was a primary disciple of Ran and, upon the latter’s death, became the leading halakhist of Aragon. It stands to reason that the responsa he wrote to Alcolea were indeed to Alcolea De Cinca, which was firmly in “his” territory, had a documented Jewish community, and had consulted with Rivash’s master when a dispute arose. This is not ironclad proof, but the evidence makes this conclusion the most likely by far.
Thank you, Mr. Ayaso, for asking this question and leading us down this fun little “rabbi hole”.
Some notes on some recent subscription lists we’ve come across and some comments on odd spellings of place names.
We have been following the “Jewish Miscellanies” blog by Jeffrey Maynard for a while. He consistently posts about the rare and interesting books in his collection, mainly, but not only, of Anglo Judaica. Some of the books in his collection have really interesting Prenumeranten lists.
One such book that he wrote about is “Zecher Ov” by Rev. Hanokh Henikh (Henry) Olivenstein, published in 1916. The author was a “Swiss-army Jew” who served communities in Wales. The subscribers include people from lots of places in the UK and elsewhere, but there’s a remarkable cluster of tiny little hamlets in southern Wales, where he ministered. Most of these places do not appear in Kagan’s index. Here’s a screenshot; you can explore further by typing “Wales” in the “English Name” text box in our Searchable Map.
Since the last update of the map, we’ve identified another place in this list: לאמבאראדאך is Llanbradach, Wales. The only place on the Zecher Ov list that we have not identified is נאוי which is in France (or was in 1916).
One interesting feature of this list is the way that some city names are spelled. We have already written how Yiddish place name spellings are phonetic, and so subject to lots of variance, based on dialect. There is also variance based on regional modifiers. For example, if you live in Frankfurt am-Main, you refer to your hometown as Frankfurt. Likewise if you like in Frankfurt an der Oder. In some circumstances, however, you will have to specify which Frankfurt you refer to.
Predictably, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of places whose names mean, simply, “New City”. This includes anyplace named Neustadt or Nove Mesto or Villanova or Ujhely. Naples and Nablus and Newton fit the pattern, too. So when a Hebrew source mentions ניישטאט or עיר חדש, it can be a challenge to disambiguate.
Fortunately, most such places have an additional modifier. To take an example of a pretty famous place, consider Brisk. Today it is known as Brest, Belarus, and it’s easy to see how Brest and Brisk are cognates. But at various times, it was known officially as Brest-Litovsk. What’s the Litovsk? It simply means “Lithuanian”. So the Russian Brest-Litovsk, the Polish Brześć Litewski, and the Yiddish בריסק דליטא simply specify that the reference is to the Lithuanian Brisk, not a different one. In this case, the other one is Brześć Kujawski, בריסק דקויא, or Brest Kujavsk, in Poland.
[Sidebar: The idea that some people call Satmar “Sakmar” because it otherwise means “St. Mary” is silly. As the Brest/Brisk example illustrates, the t/k shift happens elsewhere, and in no language does Satmar or Satu Mare mean “St. Mary”. Perhaps one will argue that just as religious Jews changed Satmar to Sakmar to avoid invoking St. Mary, they changed Brest to Brisk to avoid naughty thoughts? There are other examples – like Saponta, a town very close to Satmar, which is known in Jewish sources as Spinka. At some point, we will post about all the different places in rabbinic sources that are named for saints and other elements of Christianity.]
We do not realize it, but we often do the same thing. To disambiguate the many Springfields, Salems, and Portlands in the USA, we use the state name. Locally, Springfield is Springfield, but in many cases one will need to specify whether one is referring to Illinois, Massachusetts, the fictional setting for “The Simpsons”, or one of the many other Springfields.
When the person writing out the subscriber lists knows about this, they will account for it and use a format similar to the familiar [City, ST] format. But what if they are not? Funny things happen. Consider this responsum from Maharsham:
The דאלעסטעסקא mentioned here is none other than Dallas, Texas. It got all smushed into one word, which is typical for European place names but not American ones.
That’s just one example, though. In the subscriber list for Hemdat Yisrael, we find no less than six examples:
האליאגמאס ספרינגהעלדמאס פאלריווערמאס מאלדענמאס דענווערקולרדא לואי סווילקי
If you want to try to figure these out on your own, stop reading here. We will ID the places at the end of the post.
One peculiar thing here is that 4 of the 6 examples are from Massachusetts. Massachusetts is better represented on the subscriber list, as there were lots of small Jewish communities there, but that does not explain why 2/3 of these examples are from one state. Disambiguation can perhaps explain one of these examples, though we are doubtful about even that.
I (Elli) think that this reflects a peculiar habit of Massachusettsans to add “Mass” as a sort of suffix to cities in that state. If you heard a Massachusettsan speak and had no geographical knowledge, you might easily conclude that there’s a place called “Woostamass”. The transcriber of the subscription lists can easily have made such mistakes.
Anyhow, the places where city and state are contracted into one word (or two oddly-parsed words) are: Holyoke, MA Springfield, MA Fall River, MA Malden, MA Denver, CO Louisville, KY
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck about the Prenumeranten Project, among other topics, in his virtual “Coffee Room”. It was a great fun. I come on at about the 8 minute mark, but it’s worth listening to Rabbi Yolkut from the beginning.
The material I discuss here, particularly the discussion of Rav Hayim Tzvi Mannheimer’s Eyn Ha-Bedolah and its fascinating prenumeranten from dozens of small towns in the Pittsburgh region.
An immigrant from Poland to Tunisia in the 19th century tried to bridge cultural worlds while satisfying his wanderlust.
For the past ten years, it has been my delightful lot to help the elect of the human race, to be a deliverer and courier of all kinds of books, old and new, from Sefarad to Ashkenaz and from Ashkenaz to Sefarad. No distance was too great for me. The dry heat of Africa did not stop me, and the ice of Ashkenaz did not deter me….
I witnessed the wisdom of Ashkenaz rejoicing in the courtyards of Sefarad, and the sagacity of Sefarad raising her voice in the streets of Ashkenaz – and it was from me. I brought it about. Though I ate bread in misery, this legacy is more beautiful to me than the legacy of traders in gold and jewels….
Sweeter to my palate were dry bread dipped in stagnant water in the bowels of a ship and bread, dates, and water from a skin on a dune in the Arabian desert than every delicacy of kings and princes.
Sefer HaZikaron, Publisher’s Apologia, Livorno, 1845
Eliezer Ashkenazi was born in Poland in the early 19th century, but Tunis had become his hometown by the mid-1840s. According to his own account, financial circumstances forced him to abandon his yeshiva studies at the age of 17. It seems that his heart remained in the study hall, though, as he became a collector, dealer, copyist, and publisher of Jewish manuscripts.
Through NLI catalog, we can trace the manuscripts that passed through his hands: some he bought, some he copied (or co-copied), and some he commissioned others to copy (and then printed). One he left at the home of a friend in Modena, Italy, and never retrieved. The manuscripts were medieval and modern, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Some of them he saw or acquired in Tunis and elsewhere in North Africa, and others he came upon during his travels.
Like a one-man Mekize Nirdamim society, he published three books and facilitated the publication of several more, all of which consisted of unpublished treatises, letters, liturgical compositions, and commentaries. Of the three he published, all within the span of a decade, the first was Sefer Ha-Zikaron, whose preface, by Ashkenazi, is excerpted above. This book is a supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary by R. Avraham Bakrat, a rabbi who was expelled from Spain and ended up in Tunis in the early 16th century. Ashkenazi discovered the manuscript there and brought it to Livorno to print. He actually printed two editions in that year: one for Italy and one for North Africa; the latter lists sponsors from several Algerian cities: Mostaganem, Tlemcen, Constantine, and Algiers. The former contains several pages of prenumeranten as well as approbations from leading Italian rabbis like the famed Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto) and Yashar (Isaac Samuel Reggio). The list is apparently by order of city traveled, so we can chart his route across northern Italy (with a detour to Rome), from Trieste to Cuneo and on to Marseilles in France. He sold books in c. 40 different cities in all.
His next literary undertaking was four years later. He published Divrei Hakhamim, a compilation of 11 mostly medieval treatises with a clearly rationalist bent. This work was published in Metz. It, too, has several pages of noms des hommes genereux– the names (in French) of those generous people who pre-purchased the book. This list, too, is in order of visits, and here Ashkenazi takes us to almost 100 different places, mainly villages, in Alsace and Lorraine, along France’s border with Germany and the most heavily Jewish regions in 19th century France.
The third book, Ta’am Zekenim (whose title JE creepily translates as “The Taste of Old Men”) was published in Frankfurt in 1855. It is likewise a compilation of several older treatises, with an introduction by R. Eliakim Carmoly, a kindred spirit of Ashkenazi’s who had recently retired from being Belgium’s chief rabbi. There is barely a page of subscribers to this book, from a handful of larger cities. I do not know what accounts for this change in strategy, but it seems likely that he did not visit all of the cities where subscribers lived. I’ve combined the lists for Ta’am Zekenim and Divrei Hakhamim in one map.
The striking thing is that there is no overlap between the places in the Sefer Ha-Zikaron lists and the subsequent lists. It’s almost as though Ashkenazi wanted to tour a different part of the Jewish world when he published his second book. Having done Italy and Africa, he opted to tour France instead. He wrote the preface to Ta’am Zekenim in Marseille – the terminus of his prior tour – in 1854. From there, presumably, he sailed back to Tunis.
It is not likely that Eliezer Ashkenazi would be inducted into the 19th century Hall of Fame of Jewish scholars, bibliophiles, and codicologists. It was a crowded century. He collaborated with some better-known scholars, like the aforementioned Shadal, Yashar, R. Carmoly, Brill, and Sachs, as well as Salomon Munk. Unlike some other, he really pounded the pavement. He had passion and knowledge, and from his introductions to his publications it is clear that he had a flair for playing up his familiarity with both Ashkenaz and Sefarad in order to make his books more enticing. He professes an interest in cross-pollination between Jewish cultures and works to bring it about.
It also seems that he did not travel for the job, but that he picked the job for the travel. He seems to have had a good deal of wanderlust. In addition to the places already mentioned, he also writes of visits to Morocco and Gibraltar, thus completing his circuit of the Western Mediterranean. It is hard to know the effects of his attempts to serve as a cultural bridge and a courier of knowledge and enlightenment, but he considered the endeavor worthwhile, and we tend to agree with him.
On a personal note (and a natural affinity for Ashkenazim named Eliezer), one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 era has been the inability to travel. I have found myself feeding my wanderlust vicariously, through the travels of people like Eliezer Ashkenazi, until things open back up and we can hit the road again.
When and how did the Vilna Gaon’s reputation spread beyond Lithuania to other parts of the Jewish world? Subscriber lists can offer some intriguing clues.
One of the most interest aspects of studying Prenumeranten is how it can shed light on so many other areas of Jewish and general history, sometimes in unforeseen ways. For example, it can take us deep into the process of how books and their authors were received.
One of the most influential figures in modern Jewish history is undoubtedly R. Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797), better known as the Gr”a or the Vilna Gaon. Monograph after monograph details the uniqueness of this once-in-a-millennium mind who left no area of Torah on which he did not comment.
He was also somewhat reclusive; he was cloistered in a kloyz (I’m aware of the redundancy), interacted with a small group of elite students, and published very little in his lifetime. It was his disciples who published his work in the decades after his death.
One of the questions that has engaged scholars recently is the reception of the Gr”a outside of Lithuania. Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Brodt is working on a project tracing the Vilna Gaon’s reception in Galicia. He has also studied the role of the popular halakhic code Hayei Adam in the diffusion of the Gr”a’s teachings, of other works on the Gr”a’s reputation as a saint and genius, and on the publication of the Gr”a’s works between his death and the year 1820.
It is this last topic that overlaps with our studies. A key figure in the spread of the Vilna Gaon’s work is undoubtedly Rabbi Shimon Oppenheim (also known as R. Shimon [of] Kremnau or R. Shimon Klein). He authored several of his own halakhic works and served as a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Pest, Hungary, for over 50 years until his death in 1851 at the age of 98.
In the early 1810s, R. Oppenheim published six of the Vilna Gaon’s books within five years: The commentary on the Book of Yonah and on the aggadic tales of Rabbah bar bar Hanah (1810); a commentary on Shir HaShirim and Habakkuk (1811); a commentary on Mishnah Taharot (1812); novellae on the halakhot of niddah (1812); a commentary on the Hagaddah (1813), and a commentary on Mishlei (1814). All of these books were printed in Prague and approved by the famed censor, Karl Fischer.
Four of the books have subscriber lists, and they are of the type that traces the movements of the author or agent. For the most part, he visited the same places all four times, though there are some interesting differences. I have not yet started to dig into those differences or systematically look for the recurrence of names in the different lists, though many names repeat.
It is interesting to me that R. Oppenheim selected a broad range of the Vilna Gaon’s works for publication: Commentaries on halakhah and aggadah, on Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, on familiar texts like the Haggadah and Yonah as well as more esoteric topics like the halakhot of niddah, Taharot, and cryptic aggadot. None of the works it particularly long. The sense is that R. Oppenheim wanted to blitz the market with a variety of works by the Gaon and give readers the sense that he was indeed a sui generis figure.
The maps, presented below, are color-coded by region: Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary. This division is made by the author himself. Non-numbered places are “indirect”, that is, they are listed with another town, not among the places that the author visited. (For example, “R. Ephraim of Town X” is listed with the subscribers of Town Y). I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. David Kraus of Prague for his assistance in identifying some of these places.
For the sake of comparison, here are a couple of other books with subscriber lists published around the same time and place. The first is R. Yonah Landsofer’s Kanfei Yonah, published in Prague in 1812:
Next is R. David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel (Vienna, 1820), a Hebrew translation of key works of astronomy and geometry:
Finally, here’s R. Hirsch Brode of Kittsee’s collection of sermons, Shnei Ofarim:
This is all very preliminary, but interesting enough, I think, to bring to public attention at this stage already. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a whole bunch of prenumeranten maps that I’ve made over the past few months.
This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion – an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.
Of all the books in the Hebrew Scripture, none is more infused with kindness and compassion than the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot. The entire redemptive story turns on acts of compassion: Of youth caring for old age, the wealthy for the impoverished, and the enfranchised for the disenfranchised. It is also the “backstory” of the Davidic dynasty, suggesting that it is such acts that form the bedrock of society upon which David’s kingdom could be built.
This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion, an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.
Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of Lekhah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the Book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. R. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later, after R. Alkabetz had died.
In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (today’s Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book. As he wrote on the title page [apparently unaware of the Lublin edition]:
It has been many years since this book was printed in Constantinople, in 321, and only very few – some here, some there – reached our country. So now, my spirit has moved me to bring it to print a second time, so that the public may benefit from it.
This is the first act of kindness we will encounter. A young man who undertakes to reissue a book for public benefit.
A truly astounding feature of this book is that is contains 30 pages of Prenumeranten (you can see them in Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the book, but not the Hebrewbooks upload), the most extensive list that we have encountered. Moreover, like Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, the places are not listed alphabetically – and there are about 450 different stops on this journey. Sure enough, the order of places is chronological, allowing us to retrace the routes of the bookseller. On the way, we were able to identify hundreds of places that do not appear in Kagan’s work or that he was unable to identify. In all, we traced out eight different trips, covering over 400 places. (Some places appear twice because the seller’s routes crossed one another. We can imagine that on his return trip to Dej, he experienced [bad rabbi joke redacted].) These places are all concentrated in the “four corners” area where Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Prior to World War I, this was all Hungary (specifically, “Unterland”). Not even one of these 400+ places is outside of those four contemporary nations. More than that – he came within a kilometer of Galicia, but never crossed the border, nor any international border. (Popout link to the map)
The first stop is the author’s hometown of Novoselytsya, and all of the journeys either start or end in that vicinity. The density here is phenomenal. There were times that we could guess what the next stop would be by simply looking at the map, as our traveler visited nearly every town along the way. The map does not even include “secondary” places. For example, when the traveler visited Khust, he pre-sold copies of the book to eleven students in the yeshiva there, from nine different places. There are hundreds of such “off-route” places mentioned in this list.
This list was a great boon to our project, but we were puzzled. A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz is certainly an interesting book, but the massive publicity campaign and the incredible reception of it seem unwarranted nevertheless. The book was selling like hotcakes. Yeshiva students were buying it. Women – who rarely appear as buyers on Prenumeranten lists from this part of the world – were buying it. It made no sense to us.
Then we reached the end of the list and learned the rest of the story. The typesetter – one Yosef Chajales of Buchach – writes in a colophon how David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children – orphans. He explains how they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book: “Certainly the merits of the author of the sacred book will protect you.”
Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.
After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel from town to town, pre-selling the book. She asks that buyers pay full price – not the discounted pre-publication price – so that she can provide for herself and her orphaned children.
Finally, the brother, Tzvi Elimelekh (the name seems to indicate affiliation with the Hasidic court of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow, author of Bnei Yisaskhar and numerous other works) reports that he completed the publication thanks to the support of the presubscribers. He then blesses them with all kinds of good wishes.
These letters, however, do not capture the lengths to which the brother went, traveling to every one-horse town in the countryside of Northeast Hungary to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. Nor do they capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.
Finally, perhaps this story tells us something about the intersection between book culture and the culture of tzedaka. Had the brother gone from town to town collecting on behalf of his sister and her children, would he have met with as much success? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Had the publisher or an agent gone from town to town selling only the book, would he have met with as much success? Almost certainly not. A book like this is simply not best-seller material.
But together – the book plus the story of the publisher’s premature death and his needy family – they produced a remarkable wave of compassion. Perhaps it was because their generosity would be recorded for posterity in the list of Prenumeranten. Perhaps they thought that the book would serve as a talisman. Perhaps it was simply the cumulative effect of the two factors – the desire to own the book and the desire to help the needy – that produced this remarkable result. The people listed in this book are indeed worthy heirs of Ruth the Moabitess.