What We Can and Can’t Learn from our Data on Rav Moshe Feinstein

Several readers have pointed out, in Facebook threads and private messages and via email (keep commenting!), that whatever data we have on Rav Moshe Feinstein is incomplete; not all of Rav Moshe’s responsa have been published, and Rav Moshe answered untold numbers of questions orally—in person or by phone. Both of these points are true and important. We alluded to this a bit in “Zoom In”, but, in light of these comments, we will flesh out what we think can and can’t be learned from the table that shows the shape of Rav Moshe’s career, especially since this addresses some of the underlying assumptions of our project.

Rav Moshe’s responsa were not the first to undergo a process of editing and curation; that distinction may belong to Terumat Ha-deshen (possibly resulting in the claim that its author, Rav Yisrael Isserlein, “made up” the responsa therein). The idea that a volume of responsa can be something other than a dropbox for a rabbi’s halakhic correspondence is a crucial one—and one that is just now being studied (in, for example, Dr. Tamara Morsel Eisenberg’s recently completed dissertation; several insights in this discussion are based on her work). Our hope is that HaMapah becomes a tool to further that study.

To take a specific example, after one of our earlier posts a reader asked about responsa written by Rav Moshe to R. Meir Kahane. It turned out that there are two such responsa—Oraḥ Ḥayim vol. 2 no. 32, and Oraḥ Ḥayim vol. 4 no. 36. The first was published in 1963, and the second in 1979. The most interesting thing is that both are dated to 2 Sivan, 5719 (May/June 1959). Clearly, Rav Moshe answered both of these questions at the same time, probably in the same letter. However, the editorial decision was made to publish one part of the letter and hold on to the other part.

The part of the letter published in 1979 is the most lenient of all of Rav Moshe’s responsa on the celebration of a bat mitzvah. Though he retains his generally negative attitude toward such celebrations even in this responsum, he allows the girl to speak before the congregation at a kiddush, and even, if the family had already been so promised, from the pulpit.

It seems clear, and has been subsequently confirmed in discussions with members of the Feinstein family, that Rav Moshe indeed waited until later in his career to publish some of his more surprising and controversial positions. This is one sense of the famous Talmudic dictum, “ko’aḥ de-heteira adif”: the authority needed to issue a lenient ruling and have it be accepted is much greater than what is required for an audience to accept a stringent ruling. In 1979, Rav Moshe spoke from a different place of authority than in 1963. Looking at the various editorial phases of the work can yield a great deal of insight about phenomena like these.

We will circle back to this, but first we have to answer the phone.

Israel L. Shenker’s 1975 New York Times article on responsa includes the above picture of Rav Moshe on the phone. It begins:

Tradition has it that young rabbis completing their training are given an ordination certificate and the telephone number of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He is the closest that Orthodox Jewry comes to a court of last resort.

During much of the day he sits plumped atop a fat cushion in a chair in his study on the Lower East Side, great volumes of religious law and opinion stacked from floor to ceiling behind him, his telephone in hand.

Shenker’s article places Rav Moshe’s answers by telephone within the tradition of responsa-writing, but in truth it is something new and different. Every posek, and every rabbi, probably answers more questions orally than in writing. However, until relatively recently, the questioner was limited by distance and modes of communication. Rav Moshe was one of the first great poskim who was instantly accessible to people anywhere on earth. The work Masoret Moshe consists of Rav Moshe’s laconic oral rulings, faithfully recorded by his grandson. We were told that there is enough material to fill twenty volumes.

Therefore, when trying to understand, measure, and describe Rav Moshe’s halakhic authority and how he accumulated it (his own answer in that NYT article: “If people see that one answer is good, and, another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted”), we must acknowledge that we are operating under limitations that do not exist with respect to other halakhists. In any given period, Rav Moshe received a certain number of questions. Of those, he answered a certain number. Of the answers he gave, only some were written. Of the written answers, only some were published. We are therefore looking only at the tip of a 4-tiered pyramid. What can we hope to learn from this? After all, it is possible that Rav Moshe received and even answered the same number of questions in 1947 and 1967 as he did in 1957.

It turns out that we can learn a great deal once we accept the basic assumption that Rav Moshe, like all great halakhists, was very deliberate in crafting his public persona.

It is clear that between 1957 and 1963 Rav Moshe made a huge effort to both write and publish his answers. Of the 101 responsa in the second Oraḥ Ḥayim volume of Igrot Moshe, all but four were written before 1958. The same pattern holds for Even Ha-ezer. In all, during the seven years between 1957 and 1963, he published the first four volumes of Igrot Moshe and also penned close to 400 (c. 21%) of his published responsa.

We may now return to the question of why there is such a marked spike in these years, and we believe that Rabbi Berman’s hypothesis is a good one. Rav Moshe recognized that Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin was aging, had too many other commitments, and in general could no longer shoulder the burden of being America’s leading halakhist. Rav Moshe, stepped into that breach by beginning a seven-year frenzy of responsa-writing and publishing. By the time the dust settled in 1963, Rav Moshe had cemented his status as America’s leading halakhist.

It is true that we still do not know how many questions Rav Moshe answered in a given year, though we suspect that his peak was in the late-60s and 70s, the period described in the NYT. Since he had a telephone, his published responsa cannot tell us as much about all the ways he communicated.

However, for that very reason, the responsa that he took the time to write and publish can tell us even more about how he shaped his public image and how he became Rav Henkin’s successor. In short, how he “became” Rav Moshe.

This, in turn, opens up new ways to hypothesize about Rav Moshe’s career and to test our hypotheses. This, ultimately, is our vision for HaMapah.

The Shape of a Rabbinic Career: Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger

Until now we have mainly been looking at the distribution of responsa through space. In this post we will begin looking at their distribution through time.

What would we expect a typical respondent’s career to look like? When I (Elli) started, I imagined a relatively steep incline in the number of responsa written per year as the rabbi’s reputation grows, then a plateau, then a decline, either gradual or abrupt, at the end of the rabbi’s life.

Of course, the shape would not be completely smooth. Any number of factors over which the respondent has no control could affect his output during any particular period. Nevertheless, over the long run, we would expect the chart to look something like this:

The above chart has nothing to do with responsa or rabbis. It represents what Joe Posnanski imagines the typical baseball player’s aging chart should look like. There’s a slow start, then a “breakout” to stardom, followed by a peak, followed by decline.

Note from Moshe: I expected to see roughly the opposite shape – basically this chart flipped on the X axis. I think this was based maybe on my first-hand experience with R. Aharon Lichtenstein – slow ascent, then rise, peak, and precipitous decline. In baseball terms: the steroid aging curve. A grafting of two equations – “chashuv” increases as a function of age, but infirmity takes its toll at some point. I think this may loosely approximate a couple poskim, but it’s also not accurate too broadly. Back to Elli.

At this point, we have very good bar charts chronicling the careers of five major halakhists. Not a single one fits the pattern outlined above. Nothing is even close. We will look at two of them now and think about what they can tell us about their careers. The other three we will save for another time.

The chart below (once again, based on Michael Pitkowsky’s data) gives us the tally of responsa written by R. Moshe Feinstein broken down by year (as well as volume, which can be toggled).

plot from API (1)


We see that Rav Moshe wrote a significant number of responsa in the 1920s, but then, at the beginning of the 1930s, there a dip that lasts until the late 1940s. A gradual rise spikes in the late 50s and early 60s, followed by a decline and plateau that lasts until the early 80s and a short period of decline before his death in the mid-1980s.

What does this mean?

A full answer will require a much deeper dive. A lot has been written on Rav Moshe, and this could provide a good place for the next generation of research to start. In broad brush strokes, this is what we think we are looking at —

Rav Moshe began to emerge as a significant halakhist in the 1920s in Russia. Many of the responsa he wrote then were “recreational,” but there were rabbis to correspond with and real halakhic questions to answer.

All that changed in the 1930s, the height of Stalin’s campaign against religion. Rabbinic communication by mail became a dangerous endeavor. This campaign played a significant role in Rav Moshe’s immigration to the United States, where did not yet have much of a reputation as a halakhist. That changed after World War II, with the influx of (mainly observant) Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, who both knew of Rav Moshe from Europe and were more likely to ask questions of rabbis.

By the late 1950s, the leading American halakhist before Rav Moshe, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, began to slow down the pace of his halakhic output as he aged and took on more communal leadership responsibility (this was suggested to us by Rabbi Saul Berman). It was at that point that the number of responsa written by Rav Moshe spiked dramatically, and it is also when he began to publish Igrot Moshe. If one were to ask, “When did Rav Moshe become the poseik of America,” the answer is quite clear: between 1957 and 1963.

The subsequent decline and plateau can be attributed to several factors. One is that he, like Rav Henkin before him, began to take on more communal leadership roles. Another is that the growing Hasidic communities in America began to turn to their own poskim, like Rav Menasheh Klein (this, again, was suggested by Rabbi Berman). It is also possible that once he had cemented his status, he did not see as much need to write and publish responsa at such a breakneck pace. Poskim are very conscious of the public personas they create, and there is no doubt that the writing and publication of responsa help to curate and project that persona.

Let us now turn to Rav Ettlinger. Here is a bar chart of his responsa output by year:

BZ - by year


This dataset is somewhat incomplete as many of Rav Ettlinger’s responsa are not dated, but we do have 310 out 362 – 86% of the his responsa – and also, we are confident about what we will find in the additional data, because most of the undated responsa were initially published in the same place as many of the dated responsa: in the rabbinic journal Der Treue Zionswächter, or Shomer Tziyon Ha-ne’eman, which Rav Ettlinger edited.

Consider: the majority of Rav Ettlinger’s responsa were written between 1847 and 1856, precisely when he was editor of the journal. The nature of the journal was that one rabbi would write in with a question or idea, which was then “peer reviewed.” Rav Ettlinger had control over whose answers and responses were printed, and, unsurprisingly, he often published his own answers, which were then collected in Binyan Tziyon. Once he stopped editing the journal, the number of answers he was writing (to questions that were not asked of him specifically) dropped off dramatically.

Stay tuned, Moshe will post about Chatam Sofer later this week (both dates and locations). You can follow us on Facebook or subscribe to email updates.

All the Bychkivs

We left the last post off with a question: why did Maharsham write so many responsa (in relative terms) to Bychkiv?

That turns out to be an easy question to answer. Of the seventeen responsa to Bychkiv, one is addressed to R. Zev Wolf Tirkel, and all the rest are addressed to either R. Fishel Feldman or his son, R. Moshe Yisrael Feldman. He refers to R. Fishel as his “mehutan”, which does not refer specifically to the father of one’s son- or daughter-in-law, but has a broader connotation of someone from a family that married into our family. In the present case, it was Maharsham’s granddaughter, Chantze who married R. Moshe Yisrael. Maharsham apparently took a liking to his grandson-in-law, because he brought him from Bychkiv to Berezhany, where he became a member of the rabbinical court. In all, twelve responsa are addressed to R. Fishel (who died in 1904) and four to R. Moshe Yisrael. R. Moshe Yisrael and Chantze Feldman perished at Auschwitz on May 19, 1944 (26 Iyar, 5704), 74 years ago this week. We mention this because such things should always, always be mentioned.

The thing is, in these seventeen responsa, Maharsham spells “Bychkiv” nine different ways![1] We started looking around to see if anyone had documented all of the variant spellings in Hebrew characters of every place name mentioned in rabbinic writings. It turns out that there are such projects, most notably Sinai Rusinek’s Kima, but they are not working on the same time period. Our relationship with them is complementary; we now help one another out when we can. There are also a number of databases of Jewish communities, but they generally use only one, maximum two, spelling variations. Some of these lists don’t even allow Hebrew characters in their search functions. So identifying all of the places and recording their variant spellings became the most research-intensive part of the project, but its byproduct was that that we might now have the world’s best gazetteer of Hebrew-character European place names: about 700 places, with about 1300 variant spellings.

Why so many different spellings? There are different reasons:

  1. A place can have different names in different languages, and German, Hungarian, Slavic, and Romanian names sometimes sound nothing alike. Pressburg-Pozsony-Bratislava is a bit extreme, but at first glance it’s not easy to see how Oradea Mare, Grosswardein, and Nagyvarad are basically the same name (the name WRD modified by the word for “big”).
  2. There are abbreviations: Mattersdorf (מ”ד), Pressburg (פ”ב), Grosswardein (ג”וו), and so forth.
  3. There are prefixes that sometimes detach. Thus one of the many towns named for St. George might be a variant of George with or without a “Saint” before it, and sometimes with a “S.” Same with prefixes for rivers, or provinces. So the Hungarian “Dunaszerdahely” drops the “Duna” (Danube) in Yiddish. Brest-Litovsk (בריסק דליטא) drops the Litovsk and is known simply as Brest (or Brisk). Even the “Velykyi” of Velykyi Bychkiv is dropped. There are a lot of prefixes and suffixes like this. Sometimes they’re there, and sometimes not.  An example that has all of these issues is Sajószentpéter, Hungary. It has an acronym: ס”פ; separate saint–“סענט פעטער”; abbreviated Saint–“ס. פעטער”; combined with saint–“סענטפעטער”, and added region–“סאיא ס’ פעטער”.
  4. Simply put, there was no standard orthography. Similar consonants and similar vowels were all but interchangeable. It was not deemed necessary in general. Maharsham himself just wrote it how it sounds and produced nine spellings for Bychkiv. And if one were inclined to research how the town is spelled in English, they will find at least that many spellings, many of which are not fit for publication on a child-friendly blog.

Here are a few examples of places with a particularly high number of spellings:

Budapest has the most variants, but only because it was once three different cities (Buda/Ofen, Old Buda/Obuda/Alt Ofen, and Pest). Throw in some abbreviations and the German convention of adding a ה to the end of a word that ends with at ‘t’ sound so that it doesn’t sound like a ‘d’, and voila. This is a bit of a fudge, though, as really we should count this as two places, or even three.

Peremyshliany and Tarnoruda, both in Ukraine, are better examples. Each has 8 or 9 variant spellings on one name. Bychkiv is also in this category (except for that one spelling that includes the county name, giving us the monstrosity of “בוטשקאוומארמארש”. But here we have thirteen spellings. Where are the other four from?

Well, it turns out that Maharsham was not R. Fishel Feldman’s only correspondent, and a look at other responsa addressed to him tell an interesting story, too. There is a good amount of information available on R. Fishel, both genealogical and historical (including a list of all the responsa addressed to him–this is a rabbit-hole that we’re about to jump down). He was a businessman who learned a lot; several of his works were published posthumously by his son Moshe Yisrael. There was no rav of Bychkiv in those days, so R. Fishel (and his father-in-law, R. Yehuda Avraham Aber Rosenberg) was one of the de facto rabbinic leaders in town. R. Fishel corresponded with a variety of Hungarian and Galician rabbis over the years, including . R. Shlomo Drimer (d. 1873); Maharam Schick (YD 246; d. 1879); and a R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum (the “Yeitiv Lev”; d. 1883).

We have not (yet) found any responsa addressed to R. Fishel between 1883 (at the latest) and 1896. The responsa he received from Maharsham are not dated (except for one, from the late summer of 1897), but they all refer to him as “mehutani.” Chantze was born in 1877, so her grandfather’s correspondence with her father-in-law, which began after her wedding, could not have begun too much before the dated responsum in 1897. There are two responsa to R. Fishel in Responsa Harei Besamim of R. Aryeh Leibush Horowitz (d. 1909), the rabbi of Stryi and a “competitor” of Maharsham who did not manage to “clear his neighborhood.” These are dated to the month of Sivan in 1896 and 1897–the latter is two months before the date responsum from Maharsham. One of these responsa has a new variant spelling of Bychkiv. That brings us to ten.

It is worth noting that R. Fishel shifted his allegiance from R. Aryeh Leibush of Stryi to Maharsham around the time that his son married the latter’s granddaughter. Authority is accumulated in any number of ways, including family allegiances and fealties (or, from the other side, through strategic shiddukhim).

There are two other responsa written to R. Fishel in the summer of 1902. Both concern the dilemma about whether to accept a grant from a government fund for Jewish institutions that was administered by non-Orthodox Congress (or “Neolog”) communal leaders. One responsum appears in R. Yehuda Greenwald’s Zikhron Yehuda (where we find variant #11), and the other in R. Eliezer Deutsch’s Pri Ha-sadeh. The issue of cooperating with non-Orthodox bodies was characteristic of Hungary, but not Galicia, which did not experience the schism that Hungary did. It made sense for R. Fishel to consult the Hungarian rabbis on this specific issue, even if most of his questions were sent to his mehutan, Maharsham.

The last two variants are from 1909, when Bychkiv finally got an official Hebrew spelling, albeit under tragic circumstances. A young married man with no children had contracted typhus. On Hoshana Rabba, on the eve of a 3-day yom tov, he sensed that he was dying. He feared not for his life, but for his wife. His only brother was 4 years old, and his death would have chained his wife to the boy for nine of her prime years, until the lad came of age and could perform halitzah. He therefore decided to give his wife a get, to prevent her becoming an agunah. The problem was that no get had ever been written in Bychkiv before, so there was no accepted spelling.

In Bychkiv at the time was Rabbi Alter Shaul Pfeffer, a young Torah scholar about 35 years of age who was living with his wealthy in-laws so he could devote himself to Torah study. He was later known for his expertise in the laws of gittin, as can be seen from his three volumes of responsa, Avnei Zikaron, but at this point his status as a halakhist was not cemented. Indeed, perhaps this is where he “made his bones”. He hastily arranged the get on that Hoshana Rabba, and by the end of the three days of yom tov, the afflicted young man indeed no longer had the mental capacity to grant a get.

R. Pfeffer was not satisfied that he had saved this woman from being an agunah. Pre-empting anyone who might question his authority to issue a get, he wrote a long responsum explaining how he reached his decision about the proper spelling of Bychkiv and sent it to several leading rabbis. They all validated the get, though some of them had other ideas about how the name should be spelled going forward. In all, 25 pages of the first volume R. Alter Pfeffer’s Avnei Zikaron are devoted to the spelling of Bychkiv!

A handwritten responsum of R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer on a matter of gittin (from Kedem Auctions)
A handwritten responsum of R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer on a matter of gittin (from Kedem Auctions)

The last responsum was written by R. Pfeffer after he had moved to New York, where he headed the Beit Midrash Hagadol Anshei Ungarin and Kehilat Anshei Marmoros, to the new (and official, finally) rabbi of Bychkiv, reviewing the entire episode and the subsequent correspondence so that gittin could continue to be written in Bychkiv. His summary should not surprise us:

The Bychkiver Get
The first get of Bychkiv, by R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer

Each rabbi had a different idea about how to spell Bychkiv. R. Pfeffer insists, though, that nothing, not a single letter, should be changed from his suggestion (which was to have the full name as it was called by the local Jews–גרוס ביטשקיב/Gross Bychkiv–and the Hungarian name used by the authorities like the post office–נאד באטשקא/Nagy Boczko).

So here we have the twelfth and thirteenth (and final) variations of how to spell the name of this place–not including the hypotheticals that R. Pfeffer entertained, which would have added a whole bunch more!

[1] Two personal points about Bychkiv. The first is that my (Elli’s) great-great grandparents, Shmuel and Henye Fischer, lived in Bychkiv. Here is a link to a picture of Henye’s gravestone, which calls her “the wife of R. Shmuel Fischer of Bychkiv.” My wife and I have toyed with claiming the titles of Bychkiver Rebbe and Rebbetzin.

The second is that two unforgettable professors in Yeshiva University’s Computer Science department (of which I am an alum), Prof. Michael Breban and the late Prof. Aizik Leibovich, lived in Bychkiv. There’s more to that story, too. Perhaps another time.