Noda BiYehuda Heatmaps

One of the things we noticed when mapping Noda Bi-Yehuda is that the map for Vol. I looks different from the map of Vol. II, and that his sphere of correspondence seems to shrink over time. Take a look at what I wrote in the post about this.

We now have another way to visualize this: distinct heatmaps for the two volumes. You really see how Vol II covers a far more compact area, especially relative to the overall number of responsa. Take a look:

Sho’el U-Meshiv

We’ve got a new map of Rav Yosef Shaul Nathansohn’s Sho’el U-Meshiv. He wrote more responsa than there are pages of Talmud. If one learned Sho’el U-Meshiv Yomi it would take longer than Daf Yomi. That’s really something.

Anyhow, we mapped it. You can toggle both city maps and heat maps for Sho’el U-Meshiv and Maharsham. They were both Galician, one generation apart, so it really offers an interesting basis for comparison. I haven’t even started digging in.

How does one learn to write responsa?

The following question was recently posted to a forum in which I participate. I’ve removed identifying information connected to the scholar who posted the question, his work, and the forum in question. I’m posting the question (the she’elah) so that I can get to my ‘teshuvah’:

We know that…Rabbi…invented a method of teaching young talmidei hakhamim how to compose a teshuva, and that this method was brought to Israel and is taught in Yeshivat…. But writing of responsa has been going on for over a millennium. Obviously, hundreds of scholars throughout the diaspora over the generations somehow acquired the skill of composing teshuvot.  How did they acquire it? Mainly by trial-and-error? Or was this skill taught – and if so, how was this done, in various places and times over the centuries?

And here’s my answer:

Interesting question that gets to the heart of responsa as a literary genre. Responsa are generally written from one rabbi to another, or at least among people who were learned enough to assess the persuasiveness of the responsum and who already had a sense of the stature of the rabbi to whom they sent their query. Thus, a central feature of the genre, at least in its modern iterations, is that its goals are to persuade through argumentation and to convey or reinforce the expertise and thus the authority of the writer. If the skill of responsa-writing could be duplicated so that it would be impossible, from the product itself, to tell the experts from sub-experts, it would only be a matter of time before the true virtuosos find a new way to express their expertise. This would mitigate against the success of any attempt to standardize the training of responsa-writers, though there are certainly salient features of the genre (e.g., the deployment of honorifics to the respondent, self-deprecation, complaint of preoccupation with other matters, etc.) that can perhaps be taught.

A related question concerns the reception of responsa. Does the skill acquired in a program such as the one described translate into trust on the part of the audience? Of what value (other than forgery and parody) is the skill of responsa-writing when no one is asking?

Ultimately, I believe that the skill was developed through “shimush” – the apprenticing of young scholars under elder scholars. We know that the Geonim had others draft their responsa. Mordechai Akiva Friedman has shown from Genizah documents that secretaries often developed the shorthand of scholars and judges into full responsa, and Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg has written on how responsa and responsa-writing were used within circles of students in early modern Poland.

I would add an important exception to the above: the women who respond to questions for the Nishmat website. They are indeed trained not only in the relevant material, but are taught how to formulate answers with a specific manner and tone. It is worthwhile to look at their site (or at the collection of their responsa that have been published in Hebrew and English).

Two New Articles

I’m happy to report that one article that I wrote and one that I co-wrote appeared this week.

The World of Itinerant Jewish Booksellers” appeared in the latest issue of AJS Perspectives, devoted to travel. It takes a look at the itineraries of three booksellers reconstructed through subscriber lists. All three have been addressed here in the past, but here we zoom out a bit to see the different motives that people have for hitting the road to sell books.

The second article, co-written with Rabbanit Dr. Tova Ganzel, is titled “A Glimpse of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann’s Methods as a Decisor of Halakhah” [Hebrew]. It appears in JSIJ. Some of the methods that we used in our research and article are linked directly to the sort of work we do at HaMapah. We address the temporal development of R. Hoffmann as a posek, not the geospatial, but the temporal, it turns out, is very important and provides a great deal of insight into how he viewed himself and how he took on the role of posek relatively late in life. We were also fortunate to have access to many sources that allowed us to date individual responsa within R. Hoffmann’s works with varying degrees of precision. This element has been almost completely absent from earlier treatments of R. Hoffmann’s responsa, and the implications are significant.

Hopefully this will be the first of several articles on R. Hoffmann that Dr. Ganzel and I publish.

A Map of Rabbinic Figures in Ukraine

A few people asked me about Gedolei Yisrael who lived in Ukraine, so I made a map. It covers some 50+ towns. Some, like Lviv and Brody, get into the Hall of Fame of Jewish communities on the first ballot. Others are lesser known. About half are best known for the Hasidic courts named for them. In all, this should help make what is going on there now much realer. The order is random, and I’m sure there are major figures from other places. Please make suggestions in the comments. Note that this is not a comprehensive map of Jewish communities in Ukraine. Our Searchable Map of Hebrew Place Names, for instance, has over 1500 Jewish communities in today’s Ukraine.

Among the figures included in this map, the one that gave me a jolt was R. Menachem Mendel Hager, the first Rebbe of Vizhnitz, because of the name of his book: Ahavas Shalom, the Love of Peace.

You can open a larger map in a new tab by clicking here.

What Subscription Lists Tell Us about the Hungarian Yeshiva World

What subscriber lists can tell us about the Hungarian yeshiva world in the years before its annihilation.

When we talk about “the yeshiva world” we most often refer to the yeshivot established in Greater Lithuania in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and their transplants in the US, Israel, and elsewhere beginning in the interwar period. Rarely is there discussion of other yeshivot, and when there is, they are generally given short shrift.

There is no doubt that, structurally, the Lithuanian yeshivot differed from other yeshivot. One salient difference is that many of them functioned independently of the host communities and had their own fundraising networks. I recall learning this from Prof. Shaul Stampfer in the summer of 1999 and finding it to be quite a revelation. But there were, it must be noted, community-based Lithuanian yeshivot as well, most notably the Ramailes Yeshiva in Vilna. But Lithuanian yeshivot are not our topic today.

A number of months ago, I noticed that some books include rosters of yeshiva students within presubscriber lists (prenumeranten). Here’s an example that comes from a book called Shulhan shel Arba, a treatise on proper conduct at the table, composed by Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher, a disciple of Rashba (late-13th and early-14th century Spain). In 1939, Rabbi Yitzchak Essner, a resident of Presov, (Czecho)slovakia, reprinted the work at Vranov (nad Topľou) with his own commentaries. There are four pages of prenumeranten, including sub-lists from five different Hungarian yeshivot. Here’s the beginning of the list from the yeshiva in Dunaszerdahely:

Student-subscribers in the yeshiva of Dunaszerdahely (Dunajská Streda)

Few outside of those who really study Hungarian Jewish history have even heard of Dunaszerdahely, know that it was the home of R. Yehuda Aszod, or are aware that it was actually home to yeshivot. But it was. A glance at this list (there are 2 or 3 more students on the next page) shows that, contrary to the common understanding, the students were not just local boys, but actually came from fairly far away. Their hometowns are listed, and I have highlighted them in green. Here’s a map of the hometowns:

And this is but a small cross-section of books bought by yeshiva students in Dunaszerdahely. Of the 20 or so books with Hungarian yeshiva subscribers that I have mapped thus far, about 5 have lists from Dunaszerdahely, and there were between 12 and 41 subscribers to each book. (Lest one consider that fluctuation in the size of the yeshiva accounts for the difference, note that the books in question were all printed between 1938 and 1940.) Here’s a look at the hometowns of all subscribers from the yeshiva of Dunaszerdahely. It’s zoomed out a bit to include the one subscriber from Poland and one from Prague:

Hometowns of yeshiva students at Dunaszerdahely

There are about 120 books that have lists of Hungarian yeshiva students (about 2/3 of these were published between 1920 and 1943), and thus far I have encountered about 35 yeshivot, which is a fraction of the 230 yeshivot listed by Rabbi Dr. Armin Friedman in his dissertation on the subject. Some of the yeshivot were tiny, but there were over 300 students at the yeshiva in Munkacs in the early 1940s.

Interestingly, I have not found such lists for yeshivot in Lithuania – or anywhere else, for that matter. This seems to be a strictly Hungarian phenomenon. It could be that it is a matter of social class. Interwar Hungary (including regions like Slovakia, Transcarpathia, and Transylvania that had been part of Hungary until 1920) was very much middle class. That does not mean that all the students had money, but that enough of them had disposable income to make it worthwhile for an author or agent to sell in the yeshiva.

The yeshivot were also somewhat institutionalized. Each one had a system of gabba’im in charge of various aspects of yeshiva life. The red highlighted text above identifies a student as ג”ר דחמ”ז – gabbai rishon de-hevra mezonot. He was in charge of either organizing meals for students at the homes of local community members or of procuring the food to be served in the yeshiva kitchen. While some yeshivot were linked directly to the rosh yeshiva (often the local rabbi), and followed him if he moved, by the late 1930s, several yeshivot had permanent buildings and several staff members, and so had attained a degree of institutionalization and perceived (though, in hindsight, tragically illusory) permanence.

This post covers much of the ground from my presentation at the AJS conference in Chicago last week. There’s a lot more to investigate and discuss. I’m posting the map from which I took the images above. As you will see, you can filter it by several variables. For example, you can look (better in a separate tab) at a particular book, a particular yeshiva, or a particular town. It includes some 2,000 data points, which is really only the tip of a very large iceberg.

Recent and Upcoming Talks

Back in May we participated in and helped organize a virtual conference that showcased the different projects going on at the eLijah Lab at the Haifa University. The lectures relating to our projects are up on YouTube. Here’s a lecture on the Prenumeranten Project by our lead researcher, Prof. Marcin Wodzinski, with a response by Prof. Avriel Bar-Levav:

Next is a talk by me and Moshe, in which we ask a new set of questions, namely: Why did writers of responsa feel it necessary to include the sorts of metadata that we have been analyzing here? We present some initial ideas and finding, with a response from Dr. Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg:

There are two other lectures that I will be giving in the near future. The first, in a conference celebrating the launch of a fascinating website that documents Jewish cemeteries in Turkey. The free, online conference will take place on October 18-19, and you can register here. My talk will be a basic introduction to the Prenumeranten project.

I’ll also be at AJS this year (whether in-person or virtually), where I will be presenting some initial findings on Hungarian yeshivot based on information culled from subscriber lists. Often, yeshiva students are listed separately, and their hometowns are given – as in this image.

Subscribers to Even Bohan (Mihalovce, 1931) from yeshivot in Mihalovce, Ungvar (Uzhhorod), and Tarne (Trnava)

This offers us snapshots of the size and geographical reach of each yeshiva at a particular moment. Thus far, I have found close to 70 books that include yeshiva students in separate lists. I’m looking forward to seeing what this yields, and already it has me wondering why the Hungarian yeshiva world vanished virtually without a trace while the Lithuanian yeshiva world was largely transplanted in the US and Israel. Perhaps the latter was based on a more independent (and thus portable) institutional model, but perhaps it is because the destruction of the former was gradual, beginning already with the rise of the Soviet Union, while the latter was destroyed swiftly. We will see what sort of results turn up.

I should also mention that we are going through something of a transition as Moshe adjusts to his new full-time position with a large corporation. We will get through it.

Mapping and Making the News

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:

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.

Innovations in Digital Jewish Heritage Studies – the 1st International Haifa Conference

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.

And the rest of the conference looks amazing, too. You can register here:

For more information:…/innovationsindigitaljew…/home

Hope you can make it!

Presentation (in Hebrew) on HaMapah and Prenumeranten

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.