This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion – an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.
Of all the books in the Hebrew Scripture, none is more infused with kindness and compassion than the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot. The entire redemptive story turns on acts of compassion: Of youth caring for old age, the wealthy for the impoverished, and the enfranchised for the disenfranchised. It is also the “backstory” of the Davidic dynasty, suggesting that it is such acts that form the bedrock of society upon which David’s kingdom could be built.
This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion, an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.
Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of Lekhah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the Book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. R. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later, after R. Alkabetz had died.
In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (today’s Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book. As he wrote on the title page [apparently unaware of the Lublin edition]:
It has been many years since this book was printed in Constantinople, in 321, and only very few – some here, some there – reached our country. So now, my spirit has moved me to bring it to print a second time, so that the public may benefit from it.
This is the first act of kindness we will encounter. A young man who undertakes to reissue a book for public benefit.
A truly astounding feature of this book is that is contains 30 pages of Prenumeranten (you can see them in Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the book, but not the Hebrewbooks upload), the most extensive list that we have encountered. Moreover, like Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, the places are not listed alphabetically – and there are about 450 different stops on this journey. Sure enough, the order of places is chronological, allowing us to retrace the routes of the bookseller. On the way, we were able to identify hundreds of places that do not appear in Kagan’s work or that he was unable to identify. In all, we traced out eight different trips, covering over 400 places. (Some places appear twice because the seller’s routes crossed one another. We can imagine that on his return trip to Dej, he experienced [bad rabbi joke redacted].) These places are all concentrated in the “four corners” area where Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Prior to World War I, this was all Hungary (specifically, “Unterland”). Not even one of these 400+ places is outside of those four contemporary nations. More than that – he came within a kilometer of Galicia, but never crossed the border, nor any international border. (Popout link to the map)
The first stop is the author’s hometown of Novoselytsya, and all of the journeys either start or end in that vicinity. The density here is phenomenal. There were times that we could guess what the next stop would be by simply looking at the map, as our traveler visited nearly every town along the way. The map does not even include “secondary” places. For example, when the traveler visited Khust, he pre-sold copies of the book to eleven students in the yeshiva there, from nine different places. There are hundreds of such “off-route” places mentioned in this list.
This list was a great boon to our project, but we were puzzled. A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz is certainly an interesting book, but the massive publicity campaign and the incredible reception of it seem unwarranted nevertheless. The book was selling like hotcakes. Yeshiva students were buying it. Women – who rarely appear as buyers on Prenumeranten lists from this part of the world – were buying it. It made no sense to us.
Then we reached the end of the list and learned the rest of the story. The typesetter – one Yosef Chajales of Buchach – writes in a colophon how David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children – orphans. He explains how they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book: “Certainly the merits of the author of the sacred book will protect you.”
Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.
After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel from town to town, pre-selling the book. She asks that buyers pay full price – not the discounted pre-publication price – so that she can provide for herself and her orphaned children.
Finally, the brother, Tzvi Elimelekh (the name seems to indicate affiliation with the Hasidic court of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow, author of Bnei Yisaskhar and numerous other works) reports that he completed the publication thanks to the support of the presubscribers. He then blesses them with all kinds of good wishes.
These letters, however, do not capture the lengths to which the brother went, traveling to every one-horse town in the countryside of Northeast Hungary to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. Nor do they capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.
Finally, perhaps this story tells us something about the intersection between book culture and the culture of tzedaka. Had the brother gone from town to town collecting on behalf of his sister and her children, would he have met with as much success? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Had the publisher or an agent gone from town to town selling only the book, would he have met with as much success? Almost certainly not. A book like this is simply not best-seller material.
But together – the book plus the story of the publisher’s premature death and his needy family – they produced a remarkable wave of compassion. Perhaps it was because their generosity would be recorded for posterity in the list of Prenumeranten. Perhaps they thought that the book would serve as a talisman. Perhaps it was simply the cumulative effect of the two factors – the desire to own the book and the desire to help the needy – that produced this remarkable result. The people listed in this book are indeed worthy heirs of Ruth the Moabitess.
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.)
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.
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.