A Latter-Day Book of Ruth, in Marmaros

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 [5]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.

Title page of Shoresh Yishai, Sighet, 1891

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.

Hungarian Orthodox Politics in Yonkers

R. Mordechai Leib Winkler was a major halakhist and an uncompromising separatist from all but the most strictly Orthodox movements. What happened when a colorful individual from Yonkers, NY, invited R. Winkler to weigh in on a local issue?

The Forward recently published (in English and Yiddish) an article I wrote about the ouster of a Hungarian-born rabbi from a Yonkers synagogue almost a century a go. This particular rabbi hole opened when I noticed that R. Mordechai Leib Winkler wrote a responsum to Yonkers. The story seemed interesting, and so I reached out to an old friend, Rabbi Shmuel Hain, rabbi of YIOZ, the present incarnation of the synagogue where the events took place (and where I was scheduled to be a scholar-in-residence soon after). He put me in touch with Nancy Klein, who knew the other side of the story: that the shul’s rabbi was mysteriously deposed, and he cursed his congregants on his way out the door.

A lot of the details were left on the cutting-room floor: the type of details that HaMapah lives for. This is the expanded version of the article. For those who read the Forward article, I apologize that the new wrinkles are mixed together with some repetition.

The responsum sent by R. Winkler (1845-1932) from Mád, Hungary to Shmuel Miller in Yonkers, in January 1923, appears in the second volume of She’elot U-Teshuvot Levushei Mordekhai, R. Winkler’s monumental collection of over 1,500 responsa. It is one of four responsa that he sent to the US; the overwhelming majority of his responsa were sent within Hungary, as can be seen in our map (separate tab).

The responsum in question addresses two questions: “[A] The appointment of a rabbi who served in the rabbinate of a Status Quo community; [B] concerning a ban that this rabbi placed on a ritual slaughterer.” R. Winkler wastes no time in answering the first question: “I cannot hold back my great astonishment. What was this congregation thinking when it gave him the rabbinic position, once this rabbi served for eleven years as the rabbi of a Status Quo community!?” As for the second question, he instructs Miller to take the matter up before a rabbinical court, “and without a doubt there are great and righteous rabbis in New York City who can judge this case.”

What exactly is a “Status Quo” community, and why was Rabbi Winkler so opposed to them? The answer to this requires a deep dive into the history of Hungarian religious/communal politics during the latter half of the 19th and early-20th centuries. In brief, a failed attempt in 1869-1870 to create a single, government-recognized representative body for Hungarian Jewry led to a formal schism between the traditionalist “Orthodox” communities and the modernizing “Neolog” or “Congressional” communities, each with its own supracommunal organization. The Hungarian Parliament accepted the petition of the Orthodox communities to remain separate on March 18, 1870 – Shushan Purim – exactly 150 years ago.

At that point, communities had to choose which national organization to join. In some of the larger cities, the Jewish population split into two or more communities, while smaller cities and towns tended to affiliate with one national organization or the other. In general, southern and central Hungary gravitated toward the Neolog movement, while the older and more densely Jewish northwest (“Oberland”) and northeast (“Unterland”) inclined toward (Ultra-)Orthodoxy.

There was, however, a third option. Communities could choose to join neither of the central organization and thus maintain its autonomy. These latter communities, constituting about 5% of Jewry within the old borders of Hungary (before the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of World War I, sliced up the cadaver of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), were known as “Status Quo”. In contrast to the two larger movements, there was no central association of Status Quo communities (at least not until the late 1920s), and communities declined to join one of the two national organizations for a variety of reasons. In some cases, a small Hasidic congregation within a larger non-Hasidic community would secede and gain official recognition as a Status Quo community. In other cases, a community might have preferred German-style “Neo-Orthodoxy” and therefore wished to remain separate from the relatively hardline mainstream of Hungarian Orthodoxy. In general, though, Status Quo communities were generally quite traditional. Transplanted onto American soil, they would almost certainly be considered “Orthodox”.

This did not stop Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis from firmly rejecting identification, affiliation, and cooperation not only with Neolog communities, but ultimately with Status Quo communities as well. Among the sanctions was that meat from animals slaughtered by shokhtim employed by Neolog or Status Quo communities was regarded as non-kosher, even if the laws of kosher slaughter were meticulously observed. Regardless of personal observance or ideology, one who did not identify as Orthodox was deemed beyond the pale, unfit for inclusion in an Orthodox community.

However, the tripartite division of Hungarian Judaism does not map onto the tripartite division of American Judaism (which was just emerging in the 1920s). It’s not just that the boundaries are drawn differently; religious communities, and how they interface with government, are structured very differently. The fact – and there is no sense denying the fact – that R. Rosenberg was rabbi of a Status Quo – that is, non-Orthodox – community in Hungary would not preclude him from being a bona fide Orthodox rabbi in America, which indeed he was.

Among the leading, non-Hasidic Hungarian rabbis of his day, R. Winkler was perhaps the most uncompromising when it came to drawing bright lines between Orthodox and other groupings. Moreover, places that usually turned to other halakhic authorities were more likely to turn to R. Winkler for questions like this, as I have shown elsewhere. Of all the poskim of the day, R. Winkler was probably the most likely to impose those boundaries on religious communities outside of Hungary – in North America, for instance.

The responsum in question does not name the Yonkers rabbi alleged to have served in a Status Quo community, but we can be certain that it was indeed Rabbi Philip (Shraga) Rosenberg. R. Winkler provides the crucial evidence when he writes, in that same responsum: “I am astounded! What were you thinking when you accepted this rabbi, who was the rabbi in Neustadtel Novemesto, which is Status Quo….” In fact, before immigrating to the United States, Rabbi Philip Rosenberg was the rabbi of that town – today Nové Mesto nad Váhom, Slovakia – which was indeed a “Status Quo” community. On the title page of his first book, Bigdei Serad,a collection of Shabbat and holiday sermons, he lists “Ir Hadash (Novemesto)” as one of the places where he served as rabbi. In the introduction, he thanks the people of “Nove Mesto (Ir Hadash)”, among whom he dwelled for seventeen years. (“Nove Mesto” means “New City” in Czech and Slovak.)

Title page of Bigdei Serad, a collection of Rabbi Shraga (Philip) Rosenberg’s Shabbat and holiday sermons. He is listed as the rabbi of Congregation Knesses Yisroel of Cleveland who formerly served in Pezing [today Pezinok, Slovakia] and Ir Khodosh (Novemesto) in Old [= pre-World War I] Hungary and in Yonkers, New York.

Having established R. Winkler’s hard line against communities that did not affiliate with Orthodoxy – and their functionaries – and having established that R. Rosenberg served as the rabbi of just such a community, we can see how R. Winkler’s responsum provided a basis for terminating R. Rosenberg’s employment, and we can understand why he would feel victimized by such inquisitorial heresy-hunting and lash out accordingly.

This, however, does not tell the whole story. Although Rabbi Winkler was firmly established as a leading Hungarian rabbi, our findings at HaMapah have consistently shown that halakhic authority, until after World War II, was a regional phenomenon. In this case, Rabbi Winkler’s authority crossed the Atlantic because his opinion was solicited by a crucial figure in this story: Shmuel Miller.

At first glance, it would seem that Miller’s involvement revolved around Rabbi Rosenberg’s disqualification of a local ritual slaughterer. This, after all, was the subject of his query to Rabbi Winkler, and vendettas are born of much lighter offenses. However, a closer look at the fascinating and colorful Shmuel Miller – his New York Times obituary barely scratches the surface – reveals that his problems with Rabbi Rosenberg ran deeper.

Shmuel Miller is Dr. Simon Miller (1887-1971), a Yonkers dentist who served as a lay leader of Ohab Zedek and local chapters of Zionist organizations. He was born in Hungary but immigrated to the United States as a child, along with other members of his family. His grandfather, Rabbi Nathaniel  Miller was the rabbi of a Yonkers congregation according to an 1897 responsum of Rabbi Eliezer Deutsch (Responsa Peri Ha-Sadeh #8) – perhaps the first responsum addressed to Yonkers. Simon Miller was also the founder, editor, and frequent contributor (under his own name and various pseudonyms) of a journal called Apiryon, a short-lived Hebrew-language monthly that included rabbinic sermons and homilies, news from the Jewish world (especially the US, Pre-Trianon Hungary, and Mandatory Palestine), book reviews, eulogies, and a great deal of commentary and editorializing.  Although its editorial office was in the Flagg Building in Yonkers, it was printed at the Katzburg Brothers printing house.

Title page of the first volume of Apiryon (1923-1924), edited and published by Shmuel (Simon) Miller in Yonkers, but printed at the Katzburg Brothers printing house in Budapest.

The choice of the Katzburg printing house was no accident, as Miller’s sister was married to David Tzvi Katzburg, the editor of the noted Hungarian Orthodox rabbinic journal, Tel Talpiyot. (Their son, Nathaniel Katzburg, the noted historian of Hungarian Jewry, was thus a nephew of Simon Miller and a great-grandson and namesake of Nathaniel Miller.) In addition to Apiryon and Tel Talpiyot, the Katzburgs published the works of some of Hungary’s leading rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler.

The Katzburg family – and Simon Miller by extension – developed a complex relationship with Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis. Miller and the Katzburgs were Zionists, while most leading Hungarian rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler and his renowned son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky – opposed Zionism, even while favoring Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine. Yet they remained on excellent terms with the rabbis and had deep respect and allegiance to them. David Tzvi Katzburg is the addressee in eight of Rabbi Winkler’s responsa, several of which tackle some of the day’s most pressing issues.

There were also issues about which Zionists and the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinate agreed: opposition to the Orthodox, anti-Zionist Agudath Israel movement. It may seem counterintuitive, but the Hungarian rabbis opposed the Agudah more vehemently than they opposed Zionism. Their opposition to Zionism was tactical; they did not want to seem like anything less than patriotic Hungarian citizens. Within communities, especially on the periphery, Zionism and Orthodoxy coexisted, in some places more comfortably than others. The Agudah, on the other hand, which deigned to represent a global Orthodoxy, was seen as a direct threat to the autonomy of the Hungarian rabbinate, so their opposition to it was total.

We thus find that Simon Miller had similar attitudes: He was a Zionist, yet he conveyed respect for leading Hungarian Orthodox rabbis. In the second volume of Apiryon, Miller, writing under the pseudonym “the Young Doctor”, describes the founding of the first Zionist society in Yonkers in the study hall of Ohab Zedek, and in the very next article, eulogizes two renowned Hungarian Orthodox rabbis and also gives high honor to Rabbi Winkler.

Miller was also a strong opponent of Agudah, attacking it from both the Zionist angle and the Hungarian Orthodox angle in the pages of Apiryon as he chronicles the 1926 visit of several leading Agudists to the United States. He writes triumphantly of the Agudah’s failure to gain a foothold on American soil. His sharpest barbs are reserved for Rabbi Leo Jung of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, though he also lists “minor rabbis” who allied themselves with Agudath Israel, one of whom is named Rosenberg. A JTA report of that same 1926 visit confirms that the rabbi in question is “Rabbi Dr. Phillip [sic] Rosenberg, of Cleveland, Ohio.” Other than one other instance where he is named as a sympathizer with the anti-Zionist Agudists, Rabbi Rosenberg is not mentioned in the pages of Apiryon, even as he was the rabbi of the synagogue where the journal’s editor served as an officer.

Prof. Adam Ferziger, in an article about a debate that raged in the pages of Apiryon, notes that Miller, despite his clear, lifelong affiliation with Orthodoxy, was critical of the stark separation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox groupings in Hungary and Germany (a separatism that Agudath Israel promoted). His critique, wrapped in a thick layer of cynicism, is apparent already in the first volume of Apiryon.

Miller was thus acutely aware of the various configurations of “Orthodoxy” that obtained in different countries around the world, and he was critical of the Hungarian model even as he served as the president of an Orthodox synagogue in America. He also knew full well that Rabbi Rosenberg, a supporter of Agudath Israel, was as “Orthodox” as any rabbi in America. And yet, in order to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster, Miller was willing to marshal the support of the most uncompromising of Hungary’s separatist rabbis. It is unlikely that Miller genuinely believed that a rabbi who had served in a Hungarian Status Quo community could not then serve an American Orthodox one. After all, in Apiryon, Miller refers to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan – the founder of Reconstructionism, who by the early 1920s was well-known for holding heterodox views – as “Haredi” (which, at the time, was considered the Hebrew equivalent of “Orthodox”)! It seems clear, then, that his question to Rabbi Winkler was a cynical ploy to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster.

There are several final plot twists and ironies in this tale. As Mrs. Klein wrote, Rabbi Rosenberg managed to convince the congregation to accept his son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, as their rabbi, while he took over his son’s pulpit in Cleveland. Amazingly, this was not the first time that Rabbi Rosenberg worked out such a compromise. Rabbi Philip Rosenberg’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg, was rabbi of the town of Tasnad, Romania (then Hungary). As reported in the Tasnad Yizkor Book (pp. 38-39), when the father passed away in 1898, the son immediately became a candidate to succeed him. However, some members of the community opposed his appointment, spreading the rumor that he had studied for several years at the (more Western-facing) Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. After several rounds of fighting, the young Rabbi Philip Rosenberg worked out a compromise: He would withdraw his candidacy in favor of his sister’s husband. The community agreed, and so Rabbi Rosenberg moved away, first to Pezinok and then to Nove Mesto.

A second plot twist appears in another responsum from Rabbi Winkler, dated February, 1929. The question is whether one is permitted to officiate at the wedding of someone who converted to Judaism in the presence of “the cult of Reformers” – that is, whether such a conversion is valid. Predictably, Rabbi Winkler rules stringently and requires them to convert again. The only surprise is the identity of the questioner: Rabbi Shraga Rosenberg of Cleveland! The victim of Rabbi Winkler’s boundary-drawing was consulting with him on questions of drawing boundaries! Did Rabbi Winkler forget that Rabbi Rosenberg had served a Status Quo community? Did he never learn his name? Was Rabbi Rosenberg unaware of the role Rabbi Winkler played in his ouster from Yonkers? Or had time healed that wound? It is worth noting that in his introduction to Bigdei Serad, R. Rosenberg mentions his Yonkers years without a hint of bitterness, even thanking Ohab Zedek for replacing him with his son.

R. Rosenberg’s son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, remained at Ohab Zedek for close to half a century, though he is better known for serving as the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Unions kashrut division from 1950 until his death in 1972, and for transforming kosher-certification in America. His disciple and successor, Rabbi Berel Wein, recounts that his integrity was reflected in a phrase that he would use when presented with plans that included shortcuts and workarounds: “Vos zogt Got?” (“What does God say?”). It is tempting to think that he internalized the need for integrity and principle in the field of kashrut after witnessing how his father, after trying to remove a ritual slaughterer, was accused of eating the “non-kosher” meat slaughtered by a Status Quo slaughterer.

Finally, several months ago, the Orthodox Union appointed Rabbi Moshe Hauer as its new executive director. Rabbi Hauer’s wife, Mindy, is a granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg and a great-granddaughter of R. Shraga Rosenberg. Despite the attempt to undermine his Orthodox credentials, two of his descendants have risen to the top of the American Orthodox establishment. It seems that Rabbi Rosenberg got the last laugh.

Jew In The City? Population and Responsa

Many of our readers are probably familiar with JewishGen, the premier resource for Jewish genealogical research. For quite some time, we’ve had our eye on their Communities Database, which contains information on the history, names, coordinates, environs, and population for Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We have often used it to help us identify places, which involves a lot of guesswork since their search engine only allows Latin characters without diacritics.

You may have noticed the JewishGen logo to the right. We put that there because we recently met with the good folks at JG, and we agreed to all help each other out by sharing data and resources with each other and with the public.1Be advised: Moshe will happily go the full NASCAR for datasets.

What does this mean? It means new and better toys. For instance, that thing about not being able to search for places by Hebrew characters? Well check out our searchable map of Hebrew place names:

As of now, this table has a bit under 4000 place name variants in Hebrew characters. Once we complete the merge of our list with JG’s list, that number will more than double. And we have also started merging these lists with Berl Kagan’s Sefer Prenumeranten. Play around with it. There’s nothing like it, and this is just an “alpha” version.

It also means that Moshe got to play around with the population data in the Communities Database. We have wondered for some time whether there is any relationship between the population of a community and the number of responsa sent there. 

So is there a relationship? The short answer: It’s complicated.

Let’s compare some of our favorites (a note: we used 1900 for availability reasons, surprisingly, there’s not a strong penalty for correlation when using earlier poskim). We’ve dropped communities with over 20,000 Jews from the graph, and also because there might be other effects going on over there.2I have a very strong suspicion that this is subject to a major prewar / postwar gap.

If this reads as a horrible mess to you, then you’ve read it correctly. This is the picture of statistical noise. 

[We’re going to use a lot of numbers here, so for those who aren’t into mathy stuff, here’s the baalebatish version: A perfect positive correlation between number of responsa and population would mean that the bigger the city, the more responsa, no exceptions. It would have a score of 1. If it had a perfect relationship but it wasn’t a straight line, its Pearson correlation coefficient would be a bit lower while Spearman would remain at 1. A perfect negative correlation would mean that the bigger the city, the fewer responsa (or the more responsa, the smaller the city), no exceptions. It would have a score of -1 (again, with Pearson being lower if it isn’t linear). A score of zero means that there’s no correlation at all. With this, the numbers that express the correlation should be basically intelligible and always between -1 and 1.]

The strongest individual correlation here is Mahari Aszod at a whopping R=0.175, and he’s not even near contemporaneous. Among the poskim who were active around then, we have Avnei Nezer at R=0.04, Beit Yitzchak at R=0.11, Divrei Malkiel at R=-0.04(!), and leading the pack, Levushei Mordechai at R=0.14 (Pearson). Using Spearman it teases out a little higher, but still nothing awe-inspiring.

Let’s keep going: what happens when we sum the place counts together?

As evidenced by the trendline (or the eye test), it’s pretty grim.

Even just looking at the count of books we have, it doesn’t really get better. Regardless of whether you use Pearson, Kendall3For the not mathematically inclined: yeah, you can forget about Kendall, don’t bother., or Spearman, R<0.1.4I thought of using more, but I’m scared of P-hacking it by throwing more metrics at it.

I don’t really know quite what to make of it. The main thing I suspect: as a place becomes bigger and more independent, it needs to ask fewer questions (i.e., larger towns “clear the neighborhood”), offsetting the increase in populations (or at least roughly). In that case, there would be a population “sweet spot” in which a town is big enough that it generates lots of questions but not so big that local talent can handle them adequately. And then we might see something like the curve we get if we wildly overfit a trendline:

This remains an open question for me, but I still wanted to publish this. Let me explain myself. Firstly, given the amount of noise here, it’ll take a long time for us to fully clarify the issue.

Elli asked me the following questions when I showed him the draft, and I think they’re interesting:

  1. Maybe we should simply disregard towns that were known to have rabbis who wrote responsa, and then look at the rest?
  2. There’s a “nudnik effect”: Like Levushei Mordechai to his son-in-law in Galante.
  3. Or maybe it’s not about cities at all, but about people. The carryover we saw in Hungary – maybe it was really carryover of individuals, not cities. 

With regards to (1), well, it wouldn’t bump off enough places to make a dent, and you’d probably just drop it even further. As for (2-3), well, it’s actually all the more striking. These are both very real effects (look for Yaavetz’s over the top disses of some of his questioners(!) in She’elat Yaavetz), but strangely, even this doesn’t bear some obvious statistical linkage to population. These are all real questions, and it’s really very possible the answer could change with more data, but given the data we have at the moment, it’s clear we’d need a lot more data to truly get clarity on this issue.

So why discuss this at all? Well, one of the scourges of modern science is ‘P-Hacking’. To quote Wikipedia: “[P-hacking] is the misuse of data analysis to find patterns in data that can be presented as statistically significant, thus dramatically increasing and understating the risk of false positives. This is done by performing many statistical tests on the data and only reporting those that come back with significant results.”

For a simple example, if we look at statistically significant as being P < 0.05 (less than a 5% probability of occurring by random chance), well, if we look at 50 different foods in a diet study, we’ve now got over a 90% chance of finding something ‘statistically significant’ by random chance alone.5This is not a random example, those articles about diet studies showing ‘kale causes cancer’ or whatever are almost always p-hacking.

We’ve published stuff with attempts at very concrete findings — take our post on the handover of rabbinic leadership in Hungary, for example. Honesty dictates that we also on occasion say: ‘it’s hard to see a signal in the noise here’, even if you can’t get a journal to publish ‘nothing much to see here, folks’.


I wanted to title this post “Baby Keep It Real With His People”, referencing the hit song ‘Baby‘ by Lil’ Baby (feat. DaBaby). Sadly, despite my best efforts, the number of fans of both responsa and Atlanta hip-hop remains small, so it went. Suffice it to say, in both data and rap, HaMapah supports Quality Control.

A Sweet Treat from Crete

Material history is often overlooked, and the material history of halakhah is no exception. As new products and technologies become available, they change life dramatically and enable new ways of thinking about the world. Coffee is probably the most famous example of material history shaping intellectual and halakhic history (thanks to Elliot Horowitz’s indispensable case study), but it is one of myriad examples. Consider, for example, the affect that refrigeration had on the study of the laws of salting meat (melichah). What was once common knowledge has become an area of specialization. And so forth.

Here is another example: Some innovative Mediterranean sugar refiners made Pesach a good deal more enjoyable.

Section 48 of the Minhagim of R. Shalom of [Wiener-]Neustadt states that the common custom is to refrain from eating sugar on Pesach, because flour was added to the mixture in the final stage of the refining process. Then, on the last day of one Pesach in Neustadt, a member of the study circle named R. Zanvel brought sugar from Crete that he was certain had no flour in it, so they all partook from the sugar he brought.

I do not know why flour was added during the refinement process, and why that step was skipped in Crete, but this episode takes place in the late-14th or early-15th century, just as the Cretan sugar industry began to flourish, along with other Christian-controlled areas of the Mediterranean Basin.

From J.H. Galloway, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry”

J.H. Galloway’s article, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry” (Geographical Review 67:2 [1977], pp. 177-194), offers a fascinating view of the industry in the period after the Black Plague, the decline of certain sugar-producing areas, and the rise of others. Apropos of an episode that took place on Pesach, the article also describes the consolidation of the industry on plantations and the increasing use of slave labor (he mentions Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, and Tartars) in sugar production – long before the New World entered the picture.

Perhaps it is thanks to this R. Zanvel that Ashkenazim no longer refrain from sugar on Pesach. It seems that we dodged a bullet there. There is one other suggestive aspect of this source.

During this period, when Crete was ruled by Venice, it was known by a different name: Candia. In the source mentioned above, the Hebrew place name is קנדי (which, based on the evidence, we feel comfortable identifying as Crete or Heraklion, the island’s largest city). In English sources, too, the island and/or its largest city are known as Candy!

Did the Cretan (Candian) sugar industry and its method of refining without flour give us the with the word “candy”? Alas, no etymological dictionaries make this connection. It was a fun hypothesis, though.

Here is the passage from R. Shalom’s Minhagim:

מנהגי מהר”ש מנוישטט סימן מח
וכן נמי נוהגין שלא לאכול צוקר בפסח כי משימין בתוכה קמח, ואע”פ כשמבשלין הקנים שיש בהם הצוקר מבשלין אותן ד’ או ה’ פעמים שאין משימין בו קמח, מ”מ באחרונה משימין קמח ביורה, ולכן אין אוכלין שום צוקר בפסח. הגה’. שמעתי ממה”ר שלום ז”ל שפעם אחת אכלו הלומדים יחדיו בעיר נוישטט בי”ט האחרון של פסח, ונתן להם הח”ר זנוויל ז”ל צוקר שהביא עמו מעיר קנדי, ואמר שברי לו שאין בתוכו שום חימוץ ואכלוהו עמו

The Bessarabian Book Tour and the Monumental Commentary that Wasn’t

R. Shalom Lukianovsky wrote a monumental commentary on two sections of Shulhan Arukh. Despite his best efforts, you have never seen it. Here is his story.

Have any of our readers studied Shulhan Arukh with the Yad Shalom commentary on Orah Hayim and Yoreh De’ah? We’d be surprised if anyone has heard of it. We didn’t until last week, and in truth it is very obscure. So why are we writing about it?

This little rabbit hole begins with the hypothesis that in subscriber lists (prenumeranten), when places are not listed in alphabetical order, they trace the route that the author or agent took when traveling from town to town, selling subscriptions to fund the publication of the book. This seems like a reasonable assumption that, if true, can provide all kinds of information. For instance, it can perhaps tell us about the routes themselves and the relationships between communities. It can show who the author considered his primary audience. Did he visit only the bigger towns or every one-horse village? And does the genre of the work affect such a decision?

We recently had an opportunity to test the hypothesis. Elli was working on identifying places that appear in responsa (the overlap between HaMapah’s initial project and the Prenumeranten Project is evident) and was stumped by Divrei Malkiel 5:152, addressed to one R. Shalom, the rav of a place called פליאריא. No such place appears in Kagan’s Sefer Ha-Prenumeranten, and JewishGen’s Communities Database turned up nothing. However, a Google search showed that פליאריא appears as the third entry in the subscriber list of a work called מפענח נעלמים (Piotrków, 1912). Now, פליאריא is nowhere near the beginning of the alphabet, and in fact, over 80 places appear in this subscriber lists, in an order that is not alphabetical. We could test our hypothesis here.

It also turned out that the author of Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim is R. Shalom Lukianovsky, the rav of פלאריא. He wrote another book, too: Yad Shalom (Piotrków, 1910). There, the title page and all of the approbations list the place as פליאריא. So we can establish that פלאריא and פליאריא are the same place, and that in all likelihood, the R. Shalom of פליאריא addressed in Divrei Malkiel is the same R. Shalom who penned these two books. We are also a bit closer to identifying the town, as the title pages place it in the Russian province of Podolia. 

Here was a good opportunity to test the hypothesis, and on a list of 80 places, no less. Let’s look at the first page of subscribers to Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim:

To be honest, none of these places are household names, but a few were familiar to us. Both Maharsham and R. Tenenboim wrote responsa to a R. Yehiel Aharon Lerner in אקנא, which we had identified as Okny, Ukraine. We had identified באלטא and באלטע as Balta, Ukraine, a long time ago, though we had to make certain that the sixth place here was not Balti, Moldova. Both Balta and Balti are relatively close to Okny (though Balta is much closer), so the hypothesis, at first glance, seemed reasonable. The next question was whether we could find קאסי and בערזילא along the route between Okny and either Balti or Balta. 

Enter JewishGen’s Community finder, a phenomenal resource. For present purposes, three features are really helpful: first, it lists historical names for each place, and second, it lists (with links) all places within a 30-mile radius that had a Jewish community, and finally, it shows the place on a map. It also has links to other resources on the given place. For instance, here is the page for Balta, Ukraine:

Right away, we see likely candidates for places adjacent to Balta on the subscriber list: Olhopil for אליפאלי and Savran for סאווראן. We also see that Krasni Okny (that’s Okny) is 29 miles from Balta. On the map, we see a place called Kosy, which looks like a very likely match for קאסי, though the site does not list it as having a Jewish community. Using the site’s tooltip, we see this:

Kotovsk used to be called Birzula, which seems a likely match with בערזילא. And it is right where we expect it to be. The route from Okny to Balta takes one straight through Kosy and Kotovsk:

We can now work back from Okny to find the first three places visited. Sure enough, all three are small villages to the north/northeast of Okny: Flora (פליאריא), Stavrove (סטאוויראווי), and Chubivka (טשובווקי). One other significant point is that the first town is listed as סטנציא טשובווקי – the first word means “station”, so we would expect to find a train station there. Indeed, “Chubovka Station” is in Chubivka. Another point is that in the front matter of Yad Shalom, the author’s mailing address is given as Okny. Given the proximity and size difference, this makes perfect sense.

We have now identified the first 9 places on the list and can see the route that the author took, starting at the closest train station to his place of residence. Once we had these, the next three were easy to find using the methods described above. 12 down, 69 to go:

Alas, the next two places, באמינעצק and באקימי remain unidentified, and the two after that seem to backtrack toward the starting point. The place after that, though, is another train station, this one in מארדארווקי, easily identified as Mardarivka. It is along the same rail line as Chubivka. Jumping ahead a bit, the only other station mentioned in the list is in Zatyshshya (זאטישי), which is along the same line. This indicates that the author’s travels were not only along roads, but also seems to have included train travel. It was also becoming clear that it was not just one journey, but a series of journeys, each of which covered a different territory.

In all, we managed to identify 76 of the 81 places (many of which we did not find in any existing databases. In addition to the two mentioned, we also could not identify פיטאצק (near Odessa), ציסארסקי (between Cahul, Moldova and Reni, Ukraine), and ניקולשפאן (which seems to be in the region of Otaci, Moldova and Mohyliv-Podil’s’kyi, Ukraine). [UPDATE: A follower on Twitter has identified פיטאצק with Severynivka, formerly Potocki. Right where it should be.]

We can also show that the author took 6 to 8 different trips, during which he covered the entirety of Bessarabia (which corresponds roughly to today’s Moldova) as well as the parts of the Podolia and Kherson governorates that border Bessarabia. Most of the trips began close to Flora and proceeded outward, away from it. On these trips he sold c. 850 book subscriptions. 

We compared the places we identified with the data that can be gleaned from a 1919 US survey map of Bessarabia, an astounding map that shows the ethnographic makeup of every populated place in Bessarabia.

In the interactive map below, each journey we hypothesize is in a different color, and the order corresponds to the order that the places appear in the subscriber list. The overall order is ironclad; how we split them up into journeys is our hypothesis. (If you open the full map, the journeys are numbered and can be toggled.)

For contrast, Yad Shalom has only a single page of prenumeranten, with 17 places listed. They are also not in alphabetical order. Mapping them out, we see that the places are all bunched up, but with one clear outlier. This book, Yad Shalom, also has an astounding 18 approbations, from Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim (well, one Sepharadi rabbi), from all across the Pale of Settlement, from Kovno to the Crimea (plus one from Maharsham, in Galicia). Comparing the map of approbations to the map of subscribers shows just how astoundingly different they are:

There is very little overlap between the places where he sold subscriptions (to either volume) and the places from whose rabbis he solicited approbations: only Balta, Dubasari, and Olhopil.

It is clear from the front matter of both books by R. Shalom Lukianovsky that Yad Shalom, which is all of 80 pages (including 16 pages of front matter and several pages of segulot to assist those who have trouble having children at the end of the book), was part of a much larger work that he had in manuscript. The approbations, most of which are dated to a decade or more before the publication of the book, refer to material on Yoreh De’ah in addition to Orah Hayim. In his own introductions, he all but begs readers to buy his books so he could publish more material. On the title page of Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, he writes that he has 6,000 pages of material to publish.

The intended audience of the complete Yad Shalom was the learned class – those who could handle relatively dense halakhic material – all over Eastern Europe. Consider: R. Lukianovsky was writing in the same generation that R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein (who wrote an approbation to Yad Shalom) was writing Arukh HaShulhan and R. Yisrael Meir HaKohen was writing Mishnah Berurah. There was an audience for new works arranged according to Shulhan Arukh

After a decade of trying and failing to publish, he turned to the local communities and managed to publish a small excerpt, which covers only the first 8 simanim of Orah Hayim. Two years later, he trudged from town to town in Bessarabia to sell a shorter book of sermonic material, again with the hopes of raising money to publish his magnum opus. (It is worth noting that R. Eitam Henkin, hy”d, describes R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein engaging in a similar process, publishing piecemeal and republishing other works to fund the publication of Arukh HaShulhan.)

Could R. Lukianovsky’s work have competed with the other two? Have the manuscripts survived? Will it one day be “redeemed”, like R. Yair Hayim Bachrach’s Mekor Hayim, a commentary on Orah Hayim that remained unpublished for 300 years because Magen Avraham and Taz beat him to the punch?

We may not know the answers, but we can better understand his quest that took him to a hundred cities, towns, and villages all over Southern Ukraine and Bessarabia.

Etrogim from Poland?

A few days ago, a close friend and HaMapah fan sent a reference to Responsa Rema 126, an important source (along with Responsa Rema 117) for understanding the issue of etrog murkav, the etrog that was somehow not entirely an etrog, and therefore unfit for use (according to most authorities) on Sukkot. But the issue of etrog murkav, is, well, complicated (“murkav” in modern Hebrew), as there are two fundamentally different phenomena that come under the title “murkav”: grafting and crossbreeding. Grafting the branch of an etrog tree onto the rootstock of another (generally sturdier) citrus will produce fruits that are etrogim in every sense: the look, feel, and taste like etrogim, and they are genetically etrogim. Yet they are still unfit for the mitzvah because they did not grow from a tree that is entirely an etrog tree, and the command is to take “the fruit of the hadar tree”. That is, not only must the fruit be an etrog fruit, but it must grow from an etrog tree (see Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayim 207).

The other type of “harkavah” is the cross-pollination of an etrog with another citrus, yielding a fruit that is a hybrid of an etrog and something else. The etrog discussed in the responsum in question was clearly crossbred, as it mentions three ways of distinguishing pure etrogim from hybrids. The problem is that it was not until several centuries later that the distinction between these two types of “harkavah” was fully made. In practice, both grafted and hybrid etrogim are considered murkav and thus unfit for use.

Returning to the responsum, it has a few interesting features. Firstly, it was not written by Rema, but rather to Rema, by R. Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen, the great-grandson of Mahari Mintz, son of Maharam Padua, and relative of Rema. Secondly, it tells of how there were two congregations in Padua at the time of Maharam Padua: one Ashkenazic and one Italki. The two congregations shared an etrog. When a courier was bringing the etrog from one to the other, he was accosted by students (presumably from the venerable University of Padua), who held it ransom. Despite all of this, the community did not use any of the abundant hybrid etrogim in the area. R. Katzenellenbogen then goes on to list three differences between true and hybrid etrogim grown in the area of Padua, in northern Italy.

But before doing so, he emphasizes that these differences are not universal, and that other etrogim might have other features. This section includes a passage that tends to leap out:

And the hybrids (murkavim) that grow in these countries (medinot) are discernible and known to us, but from the region (mehoz) of Poland (Polin) come etrogim about which we are uncertain. And this year, most of our etrogim were from that region. I write to your honored Torah excellence three signs by which you can recognize the hybrids that grow in our land, because the ones from Poland (Polaniya) cannot reach you, for it is far away.

The geography here makes little sense, for several reasons:

  1. Etrogim grow in Poland? And are exported from there to Italy!? Granted, at the time that the responsum was written (late 1560s or early 1570s), Poland was experiencing its Golden Age and almost reached the Black Sea, but that is still not the climate for growing citrus, there is no record of etrogim growing there, and it seems extraordinary unlikely that etrogim would be exported from Poland to Italy. 
  2. Rema was in Krakow, so how could Polish etrogim, even if they existed, be too “far away” for Polish Jews to obtain? And yet still be accessible to Italians!?
  3. Poland, as noted, was huge at that time. It seems odd to call it a “mehoz”, which generally denotes a regional subdivision roughly equivalent to a county or district, not a large kingdom.

The image above is from the 1883 Warsaw edition of Responsa Rema, which has been the basis of numerous reprintings in the 20th century. It is also the edition digitized by Sefaria. However, if one goes back to earlier editions, things are a bit different. The Amsterdam 1711 edition, for example:

Poland (Polin) is mentioned in the first instance, but later we have ‘פוליי. In the three earlier editions (Krakow 1640, Hanau 1710, Hamburg 1710 – yes, it was printed 3x in 1710-1; seems significant, but I’ve got nothing), the place is called ‘פוליי in both instances:

Rabbi Dr. Asher Siev, in his 1971 critical edition of Responsa Rema (which the Bar-Ilan project uses), restores the original, notes that the emendation to “Poland” is erroneous, and comments that the reference is to “a region in Italy” (nn. 7-8):

Last year, a volume on the history of the etrog, aptly named Ha-Etrog, edited by Eliezer Goldschmidt and Moshe Bar-Yosef, was published by Mossad HaRav Kook. It has an appendix with several important responsa on etrogim, including Responsa Rema 126. It, too, restores the original print edition and identifies ‘פוליי with Apulia (Puglia in Italian), a region in southern Italy (the “high heel” of the boot). 

Suddenly it all makes sense. Apulia and nearby Calabria are some of the most venerable etrog-growing regions. The “Yanover” (= “Genoa”) etrogim originate in Calabria. And indeed, Apulia is quite far from Poland. 

The Prenumeranten Project and Other Good News

We’re part of Haifa U’s digital humanities lab, we won a nice grant to work on a really cool project, and in short, things are moving.

We have some good news to share. 

First, HaMapah is now a project of e-Lijah Lab, a digital humanities laboratory at The Department of Jewish History and Bible Studies in the University of Haifa. One of the e-lab’s goals is to provide digital platforms for the public to participate in research. We will be unveiling a crowdsourcing site in the near future, where users will be able to help our efforts, and where we will release functional tools as we develop them and reach a critical mass of data. 

We have also become big fans of the e-Lijah Lab ecosystem. At present, there are six or seven DH projects participating in the lab, and there’s a lot of synergy and cross-pollination. It’s relatively new, but there’s no other Digital Judaica incubator like it in Israel, perhaps in the world. We’re excited to be part of it.

The other big news is that we won a substantial and prestigious grant (from a foundation that prefers anonymity) for a project that we proposed together with Prof. Marcin Wodzinski of the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław (and author of the astoundingly gorgeous and informative Historical Atlas of Hasidism; you can read Elli’s review here). Over the next three years, we will be developing a comprehensive database of “Prenumeranten” – the subscriber lists that appeared in c. 1500 Hebrew books printed primarily in Europe during the 18th – 20th centuries. These lists are a gold mine of information about all kinds of under-explored aspects of Jewish history and intellectual cultures (in addition to the obvious data points: hundreds of thousands of names, aggregate data on cities and towns, their functionaries, and the institutions that operated within them, etc.). We’ll be writing more about it here and elsewhere, but let us look at two examples.

Below is an image of one of eight pages of subscribers to Sefer Zekhuta De-Avraham, a collection of homilies by R. Avraham Landau, the Rebbe of Tchechnov (Ciechanów, Poland), published posthumously by his sons in 1895. It is clear from the full list that a good chunk of the audience was Polish Hasidim. Among the institutions mentioned as subscribers are groups and shtiblekh of Hasidim affiliated with Polish dynasties: Alexander, Gur, Amshinov, and Tchechnov. This is informative, but not surprising. We also get names of rabbis, teachers, judges, and ritual slaughterers of the various towns – these are highlighted in yellow. 

There was one functionary, common to several towns, that was unfamiliar to us: “Gabbai De-Tikun Sefarim”. We asked several experts, none of whom had ever heard of this title, either. From what we can piece together, we tentatively suggest that this originally referred to a functionary whose role was to repair the books in the synagogue of beit midrash. As books became cheaper and more abundant, the role expanded to be a sort of librarian with the authority to acquire books on behalf of the community. Several of the contemporary gabba’im (and gabba’ot) de-tikun sefarim were very excited about this.

The second example is from R. Yitzhak Isaac Spirn of Komarno’s Nidvat Pi. Some readers may recall that Elli published the commentary on Mishnah Kinim from this book in honor of his son becoming bar mitzvah two years ago (if you didn’t, you can request access here; R. Yitzhak Isaac is the topic of Yakov Z. Mayer’s master’s thesis as well). At the time, Elli noticed a few interesting features of the list of subscribers that appears at the end of this book.

The orange highlights are patronyms. The blue highlights are surnames that derive from communal occupations. The yellow highlights are institutions. These are fairly commonplace.

More interesting are the purple and green highlights. The green highlights are surnames – not interesting in themselves, but note that there are only some people have surnames. In fact, it seems to depend on the place. In some places people had surnames, and in some places they didn’t. The book was published in the mid-19th century, and most of these towns are in what was then Hungary. Ruther research is needed, but it seems that what we have here is a snapshot from when Jews in the Habsburg Empire were assigned surnames. Places closer to the capital and larger towns seem to have gotten there first, followed by small towns and villages far from the center of the empire. It will be fascinating to trace this more systematically.

The purple highlights show where subscribers identified themselves by their mothers’ names. We have not seen this anywhere else (yet), so it is quite extraordinary. What is going on?The author of the book was a Hasidic Rebbe with a reputation for being a ba’al moyfes, a miracle worker. The prayers and blessings of such tzadikim were thought to be very powerful. Moreover, in his thesis (p. 65), Mayer points us to the author’s introduction to the list of subscribers:

Here, R. Yitzhak Isaac “stretches his hands out to the heavens” on behalf of all of those who are “engraved” in this book. He prays that “they shall be blessed with the blessings written in the Torah” and so forth. Traditionally, in blessings on prayers on behalf of another, the mother’s name is used. 

It seems, then, that the subscribers to this book were not only interested in adding it to their personal collection, but saw it as a way to gain the tzadik’s blessing (whether this was part of R. Yitzhak Isaac’s marketing strategy is unknown), and so they subscribed under matronyms, as it was considered more auspicious for such purposes. This sheds some light on the inner religious world of those who purchased such books. 

In short, there’s some fascinating stuff here, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. We apologize for not posting for a while, but we’ve been busy, and we can’t wait to share some of the fruit of our most recent labors.

Measuring the Geographic Similarity of Poskim*

There’s a phrase that people like to quote, “labels are for cans”. While the statement’s intentions — either “stereotyping is bad” or “I’m a special snowflake”–are good and relatively inoffensive, respectively, it makes for bad epistemology. It’s a terrible approach to organizing information.

To understand, we need to generalize. To understand the course of any field, we need a broader understanding, a concept of a movement or a style. Sometimes, this division can take on an objective aspect. At an extreme, an artistic group like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or the Wu-Tang Clan has a defined set of artists who comprise it. However, even that can quickly break down. Ford Madox Brown is stylistically part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he hung out with them a lot, and his work is displayed with theirs, but he was never a member. Broader characteristics run into issues like this too. Kanye West may be from the Midwest, but to the accepted meaning of a “Midwest Rap” style, as exemplified by Twista, Tech N9ne, Krizz Kaliko, Royce Da 5’9”, or Eminem, an emphasis on technical mastery, speed, and precision, with a smattering of themes from horrorcore, he’s certainly not that.

So when I try and discuss data-informed categorization, it’s important to clear up my intent up front. In terms of intellectual categories, I’m not trying to remove subjective judgements. I’m trying to inform. The goal here is to present another variable that can be incorporated into a broader stylistic judgement. The actual measured effect of a posek in terms of area of direct influence, implied or otherwise, should certainly factor into any intellectual taxonomy, and certainly ought to dominate a taxonomy of the landscape.

Our maps have their limits. When we have areas of influence that are completely disjunct, it’s trivial to draw the appropriate conclusions with the eyeball test. However, what to do with somewhat overlapping sets of a couple hundred points each? How do we meaningfully assess the relative similarities of multiple sets of a few hundred points of different sizes, all weaving in and out of each other?That’s where the math comes in.

Our basic metric is cosine similarity. For readers who don’t remember much about sines and cosines, here’s a little refresher. The cosine of 0 is 1, and the cosine of 90 degrees is 0. The more acute an angle, the closer it gets to 1.

Now, let’s imagine two poskim. Posek A writes responsa only to Minsk, and Posek B writes responsa only to Pinsk. Imagine that we plot this on a two-dimensional grid, with the X-axis representing responsa to Minsk, and the Y-axis representing responsa to Pinsk. Each posek can then be expressed as a point in the grid: Posek A as (M, 0) and Posek B as (0, P), because Posek A writes 0 responsa to Pinsk, and Posek B writes 0 to Minsk. That is, Posek A is expressed as a point on the Minsk axis, and Posek B as a point on the Pinsk axis. We can then think of our poskim as line segments, or “vectors”, from the origin to the grid coordinate. It’s obvious that the two vectors in our case are orthogonal. They form a right angle, and thus have a cosine of 0. This means that they are perfectly dissimilar; they have no places in common.

Now imagine Posek C who also writes only to Minsk. Her vector will form an angle of 0 degrees with Posek A’s vector, so they will have a similarity score of 1, which is the cosine of 0.

This exercise is meant to show how the cosine of two vectors provides a good metric for scoring similarity. It’s not perfect, but it’s good.

Two dimensional space is pretty easy to envision, but dealing with 500 place names requires a 500-dimensional vector space, which is impossible to envision. Fortunately, thanks to math, we don’t need to envision it. And since there cannot be any negative numbers (because it’s impossible to send a subzero number of responsa to a place), the angle between the vectors will always be between 0 and 90. We can compare any two poskim to obtain a similarity score between 0 and 1.

Let’s walk through the basic process again with vectors in 4 dimensions. We start with the data from two poskim.

So this table will become two vectors, for Posek D [7 4 7 1] and for Posek E [3 0 9 2]. The order of the cities doesn’t matter, provided that they are respective — that the nth place in each refers to the same place. We then take the angle between the two vectors. In this case, the angle is about 34.2 degrees, and the cosine of the angle is 0.827.[1] Since the cosine goes from 0 to 1, the similarity between the poskim is high. This passes the eyeball test, too; there is no city to which E writes that D does not write to, and only one that D writes to but not E. This is a lot more similar than we’d expect in reality. As we have seen, the career of a posek is dynamic; they move, and their sphere of authority grows and shrinks and shifts over time, and communities likewise change. When we divide a posek’s career in half chronologically[2] and compare the first half to the second, the cosine tends to be in about the 0.35-0.5 range (typically around 0.4). Therefore, when two poskim score 0.3 or above, it means they are very similar in terms of geographical reach. A score above 0.4 means that the geographic reach of the two poskim are as similar as two halves of the career of a single posek, or about as similar as can reasonably be expected.

We can formulate another version of this, where we turn the vectors into binary vectors — D now gets [1 1 1 1] and E [1 0 1 1], the effect here being to just ask about where, without regard to distribution. We call this “unweighted”. We use a third type here — “mixed” — a simple average of the two. Crucially, the size of the vector — the distance from the origin — doesn’t impact the angle, so we can measure between people with very different corpus sizes.

What can we get from this? For starters, can we justify traditional divisions? Let’s take a look.

We can see a pretty clear division here — with Hungarians and Galicianers following the expected division, and a showing for our Poles (Avnei Nezer and Divrei Malkiel) of “close but no cigar”. (Divrei Malkiel was the Rav of Łomża, close to Lithuania; some may protest his being lumped with the Poles.) Let’s drop them for now.

So we see a really clear division between the Hungarian and the Galicianers. The Galicianers are all quite similar to each other, and all mostly dissimilar to the Hungarians. But there’s another thing going here too. Let’s take a look at just the Hungarians. And we’ll rearrange it here.

We can tease out a couple more things here. We can see the Sofer family — Oberland cluster clearly; the Maharam Schick (who moved from Oberland to Unterland mid-career);belongs there too, but a little less; the two most Unterland Unterlanders pair nicely, and the Levushei Mordechai (who also moved) straddles the two.

Further data would be nice (and we’re working on it), but what we have thus far suggests that we can view Hungarians as a distinct species, as it were, with Unterland and Oberland subspecies (and those who straddle both).

I’ll add another point — preliminary results thus far delineate that Hasidic psak is a subgroup within regions. Hasidic poskim do not command broad loyalty beyond their region. This may also well be the case beyond just the geographical spread data, in terms of methodology and style as well; for one example that comes to mind immediately, we hypothesize that Chabad’s tendency to rule strictly about eruvin is linked with their being a Hasidic subset of Lithuanians, not a Lithuanian subset of Hasidim.

[*] Thank you to R. Dan Margulies, who hashed out the math here with me (Moshe).

[1] In reality, we don’t ever take the actual angle, we calculate it as dot(u,v)/(norm(u)*norm(v)).

[2] Meaningful divisions here are less similar than random divisions. People die, people move, and various other events mean that we see a grouping that is “lumpy” — dividing a corpus chronologically does not approximate an even division. In a random division, any discrepancy between the similarity and 1 would be pure noise. Here, there are signals going on too.

The Search for שאהל

A lot of the hours we put in are devoted to identifying place names as they appear in responsa with geographical coordinates. We have discussed how many places have several names and that there was no standardization of spelling. Moreover, some of these places have been swallowed up by larger cities and many others are so tiny that there is very little documentation to go on. The search for these places is a challenge and a lot of fun, though it can be frustrating. But first, the fun.

Several months ago, our friend Yisrael Dubitsky, Senior Digital Manuscripts Bibliographer at the National Library of Israel, posted a query to a specialist Facebook group trying to identify a place called שאהל. In the 19th century, Rabbi Shmuel Kitze of this town sent a letter to a Rabbi Zalman; the letter ended up in the Karlin-Stolin Library in Jerusalem and has been digitized.

The problem with a place name like שאהל is that it is short and has only two extremely common consonants. Nevertheless, we were able to positively identify the place with 100% certainty.

Participants in the FB discussion made suggestions like Shal, Iran and Challes, France; I thought that the search should focus on the Austro-Hungarian Empire because the writer’s name, Kitze, comes from Kittsee, one of the Sheva Kehillot/Siebengemeinden/ Seven Dorfs (never gets old) of Burgenland, now Austria. But even within the Habsburg realms, there were lots of possibilities: Tekovské Lužany, Slovakia (Nagysallo in Hungarian), Šaľa, Slovakia (Hungarian: Vágsellye, German: Schelle); Szamossályi, Hungary; and Șoala, Romania (Sálya in Hungarian).

There were problems with each of these suggestions, though. For example, Šaľa is spelled שאלה or סלה in other sources, as Yisrael pointed out. Nagysallo may have been called just Sallo (we’ve discussed dropped prefixes in Hungarian place names), but that “o” is unlikely to have been dropped. The letter “y” at the end of a Hungarian place name is usually dropped, but not “o”. Șoala has no documented Jewish community, so it’s an unlikely candidate. That left Szamossályi, a town in Northeast Hungary with a Jewish population of 144 in 1900. We had nothing more concrete than that, but the fun was just starting.

The next step (which maybe should have been the first step) was to consult a reference book. There’s no comprehensive gazetteer, but Berl Kagan’s indispensable Sefer Ha-Prenumerantn (Hebrew Subscription Lists) has a lot of place names. Like almost 9000. He has an entry for שאל where he lists שאהל as a variant spelling. This entry (#8362) does not appear in the Latin spelling index at the end of the book. But Kagan gives us a list of several books that mention this place in its list of presubscribers. Looking up the entries, we find that in R. Meir Asch’s Homat Esh has one subscriber from שאל, but it adds in parentheses “בורשוד”. This is the name of a county in Hungary. Looking at a list of towns and villages in this county yields one good candidate: Saly, Hungary. This was still tentative, though; this town does not even have a separate entry in the JewishGen Communities Database, though it is listed by IAJGS as having a cemetery (“BAZ” is Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen County), and it also appears in several lists of smaller communities near Miskolc.

Saly (highlighted) in Borsod County, Hungary, just south of Miskolc

Moving down Kagan’s list, we find that R. Zvi Hirsch Friedman’s הישר והטוב, published in 1880, has no less than 10 subscribers from שאהל, with that very spelling. The first subscriber listed is the town’s rabbi, R. Shmuel Schlesinger.

Now things connect with work we’ve already done. Rabbi Shmuel Schlesinger is in our database. He was the recipient of a responsum from Maharam Schick in 1878 (Orah Hayim 37), in which he is addressed as the the rav of שאללי בארשאדער קאמידאט. That is, the rav of שאללי, in Borsod County. So now we have an individual, R. Schlesinger, who is the rabbi of שאהל in 1880 and שאללי in Borsod County in 1878, and another identification of שאהל with שאל in Borsod County.

QED. שאהל is Saly, Hungary.

Funny enough, Kagan has another entry (#8372) for שאלי, which he identifies with Saly.

Borderlands: Maramaros, between Hungary and Galicia

[This post is based on a presentation that Elli gave on February 6, titled “The Geography of Post-Schism Responsa in the Hungarian Hinterlands”, at a conference in Budapest on “‘Unhealed Breach’ or a Good Divorce? The Hungarian Jewish Congress (1868-69) and the ‘Schism’ in Historical Perspective”.]

One of the key premises of the HaMapah project is that local rabbis have a great deal of freedom in choosing who, if anyone, to ask the tough questions. The resulting question–What informs that choice?–can be considered from the supply side and from the demand side. On the supply side, the question is how rabbis built their reputations and earned the trust of other rabbis. We have argues that this is not a naïve process by any means. On the demand side, of course, the desire for a particular answer may play a role, but the process is far more complicated than that. Conscience, precedent, and communal norms play roles. This topic–”Who decides who decides?”–was the topic of a Torah in Motion panel discussion between Elli, Prof. Chaim Saiman, and Judge Sharon Shore last month. It’s worth listening to the entire discussion (link to video), but suffice it to say that these processes, and the relationship between halakhist and audience, are sufficiently dynamic that attempts to reduce halakhic outcomes either to rabbinic fiat or to public will inevitably fall far short of the mark.

As a “case study” of how these dynamics play out, we decided to take a closer look at a phenomenon we addressed in one of our first posts, namely, that the Galician cultural sphere was shifting to the south and west in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

We have pointed out that Maharsham wrote a relatively large number of responsa to places just across the border in Hungary, a pattern that comports with migratory trends. In a different post, we noted that Reb Fischel Feldman broke from his general habit of posing questions to Maharsham (once his daughter married Maharsham’s grandson) by posing a question concerning the permissibility of accepting monies from a government fund for Jewish institutions that was administered by non-Orthodox Congress (or “Neolog”) communal leaders. We now want to broaden the view to look at patterns within responsa sent by Hungarian and Galician poskim to Hungarian places near the Galician border.

It has been a while since we posted anything, but we have not been idle (and we have shared some things via our Facebook and WhatsApp channels). For one thing, we have done some work on Hungarian poskim from a century ago and have completely mapped four of them: Rabbi Simcha Bunim Sofer (Shevet Sofer), Rabbi Mordechai Leib Winkler (Levushei Mordechai), Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Dor Revi’i–Yoav Sorek helped with the data), and Rabbi Yehuda Greenwald (Zikhron Yehuda). All four of these poskim were active in Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century, some at the beginning of their careers, and some at the end. This is also not a comprehensive list of Hungarian poskim who were active then, but it’s a good representation. Here is the map of these four poskim. As usual, it’s easier to open in a separate tab:

When comparing the four maps, do not be fooled by the size of the dots; R. Winkler wrote 76 responsa to Galanta, Slovakia, mainly to his son-in-law, Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, so all the other dots are smaller in comparison. However, R. Winkler wrote 1555 responsa, more than R. Greenwald (491), R. Sofer (245), and R. Glasner (199) combined. In terms of the number of places addressed, R. Winkler again far outpaces the competition, writing to 174 places (the other three wrote to 66, 85, and 65 respectively). Interestingly, though, Shevet Sofer gives Levushei Mordechai a run for its money when it comes to geographical spread.

This is also a good time to note a feature of our maps. Place names do not automatically appear, but if you mouse over a dot, the name and number of responsa written to that place will pop up, and if you click on the place, the Hebrew/Yiddish spellings and references to the individual responsa will pop up.

Now that we have had some fun comparing and contrasting these four Hungarian poskim, we can introduce the next map, which combines all of these Hungarian poskim into one dot, and all three Galician poskim we’ve mapped–Maharsham, Harei Besamim, and Beit Yitzhak–into a dot of a different color. By zooming in on the border areas, it becomes easy to see that the realms of these two groups were largely distinct, except for a few counties along the border: Ung, Bereg, and especially Maramaros. Here’s the map (separate tab):

In the three aforementioned counties, there were 125 responsa received from Galicia, 91 from within Hungary. In terms of places, 28 received from Galicia, 20 from Hungary. But if we focus in on Maramaros, the picture gets more interesting. The Hungarian poskim sent 37 responsa to 10 places in Maramaros. The Galicians sent 89 responsa to 20 places. If we take out the two largest cities in the county, Sighet and Khust, then we are left with 8 and 16 for the Hungarians, 18 and 60 for the Galicians. There are two towns n Maramarosthat received responsa from Hungary but not Galicia. There are 11 towns that received from Galicia but not Hungary.

There are a few things that seem to be going on here. Firstly, the Hungarian influence seems to have been greater in the larger towns and cities along the border. Presumably this was not accidental. Three leading pupils of Hatam Sofer–Hayim Sofer, Moshe Schick (Maharam Schick), and Meir Eisenstadter (Maharam Ash)–moved east and became the rabbis of Mukacheve (Munkacs), Khust, and Uzhorod (Ungvar), respectively. As Rabbi Dr. Levi Cooper has written, the appointment of a Hungarian rabbi like R. Hayim Sofer to head the Munkacs rabbinate was more the exception than the rule, but the attempt to “Magyarize” the Munkacs rabbinate was at least attempted, and in terms of responsa, Munkacs received 17 from Hungary and only 4 from Galicia. In Ungvar, the attempt was far more successful; not a single responsum was sent there from Galicia (8 from Hungary). Khust and Sighet, in Maramaros, remained more evenly split (and in the case of Sighet, famously riven by strife between different rabbinic factions).

Once we leave the larger towns, however, the story is very different. As is often the case, rural communities change more slowly than cities. The Jews in these towns and villages retained their cultural ties to Galicia and did not magyarize, so they tended to send their questions to rabbis that they trusted and felt comfortable with–Galician rabbis.

This was a time of schism within Hungarian Jewry. In the late 1800s, in response to the split between Congress (“Neolog”) and Orthodox factions, Orthodoxy emerged as a confession and as an independent identity, to the extent that mere identification with anything but Orthodoxy was deemed heretical.One of the arguments consistently raised by Hungarian rabbis in these contexts is that Galician rabbis, as great as they were, did not really understand the threat of Neolog or the absolute need to affiliate with Orthodoxy. The Galicians, for their part, were burned when they attempted to weigh in on these issues, and generally hoped that their communities would not be visited by such strife.

In the small towns and villages, Jews who had migrated south and west from Galicia could maintain cultural ties to their place of origin. However, the official rabbis or the de facto religious leaders of these small communities were keenly aware of the risks entailed by ending up on the wrong side of the rift between Orthodoxy and its competitors; this may have been out of simple fear for their jobs, social standing, or marriage prospects, or they may have internalized the divide between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy (and even the sense that Galician rabbis were not equipped to deal with such dilemmas). Thus, questions dealing with controversial issues in Hungary would have been referred to Hungarian rabbinic authorities–and specifically to R. Greenwald and R. Winkler, whose reputations were far more “hard line” on these issues than R. Sofer and R. Glasner.

Thus, in addition to the question from R. Feldman to R. Greenwald, we have a question from Berehove (Beregsas) to R. Greenwald concerning the expansion of a synagogue in a way that would make the women’s gallery directly above the expanded part of the men’s section–a matter of significant controversy in Hungary (Zikhron Yehuda 1:79). R. Winkler was asked by the community of Viseu de Sus (Oberwischau) about synagogue remodeling as well (Levushei Mordechai 4:31). These are far from the only issues addressed in responsa from Hungarian rabbis to borderland communities in these years, but it seems that they crop up with greater frequency. A more systematic study of these borderland responsa is certainly warranted.

Incidentally, we also took two major Polish/Lithuanian responsa collections from this period, Avnei Nezer and Divrei Malkiel, to see how many responsa they wrote to these areas. The sum total is: 0.