Rivash and the Raging Bull

We step away now from Ashkenazic poskim of recent centuries to take a look at one of the best-known halakhists of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Rabbi Yitzhak ben Sheshet Perfet, best known as Rivash.

Rivash lived most of his life in Christian Spain before fleeing religious persecution and settling in Algiers for his last years. Although he does not date any of his responsa, and very few have information that can help us pin down dates, he almost always records where he sent each responsum (though often the place name appears only in the first of a series of responsa to a particular correspondent). So we can get a pretty good map.

Rivash wrote over 500 responsa. About 50 have no indication of the place of address, and there are still five places that we have not identified. (For those playing at home, they are: אופטי, אל פראנו, נאקה, פינה, קמראשה; if any of our readers have any idea about what these places might be, we would be grateful for the assistance.) In total, then, we have mapped 458 of his responsa.

There are two main clusters, corresponding to the two places where Rivash lived: the Kingdom of Aragon in Iberia (including the Balearic Islands and Sardinia) and the Zayyanid Kingdom of Tlemcen in North Africa. These two clusters account for c. 75% of his responsa. Note also that the two clusters are not distributed in the same way; he wrote to many more communities in Aragon than in North Africa, though the three cities that received the most responsa from him are all on the North African coast. We have not yet embedded borders from the year 1400 in the map, but compare the clusters in the map above to the borders in the map below:

Of the remaining responsa, most were sent to other Iberian kingdoms: Mostly to Castile, a handful to Granada and Navarre, and none to Portugal. (Within Castile, not even one was sent to the other Galicia.)

Other than that, there’s one to Fano, Italy, two to Perpignan, Provence, and three to “Ashkenaz”. These latter responsa were mainly about major halakhic controversies.

Having done this survey, I (Elli) also want to draw attention to one teshuvah in particular, which shows how our insights about metadata can converge with analysis of legal and rhetorical argumentation to yield new and surprising insights.

Teshuvot Ha-Rivash #394 was sent unsolicited to Rabbi Hayim Galipapa, after Rabbi Hasdai [ben] Shlomo shared a notebook containing several controversial rulings of R. Galipapa with Rivash. R. Galipapa had permitted some things that had traditionally been forbidden: combing one’s hair on Shabbat and eating certain types of cheese produced by gentiles. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the editors of the masterful Jewish Encyclopedia saw him as a proto-reformer of sorts, writing about him: “Galipapa belonged to the liberal school, setting aside the strictly orthodox rabbinical authorities, and following even in advanced years those that inclined to a more lax discipline.” The evidence of his “liberalism” comes only from this responsum, which is why it is surprising to see the editors write that Rivash “seriously but gently reproved him”, as there was nothing gentle about Rivash’s reproof.

Rivash opens his responsum with a broader offensive. We will quote the opening lines in full, including translation and reference to the Biblical verses that Rivash invokes:

Daniel 8:4 I have seen you, a butting ram

ראיתיך איל מנגח

Habakkuk 3:4 And your horns come out from your hand

וקרנים מידך לך

Micah 4:13, 1 Kings 22:11 Horns of iron

קרני ברזל

Daniel 8:6 With the fury of your power you charge

בחמת כחך תרוץ

Daniel 8:7 You rage


Psalms 22:13 Against the mighty bulls of Bashan

אל אבירי בשן

Leviticus 16:10 To hurl them to Azazel

לשלח אותם לעזאזל

Proverbs 30:27 You march forth

ותצא חוצץ

Habakkuk 3:6 To shatter age-old mountains, to bring low the primeval hills

לפוצץ הררי עד לשוח גבעות עולם

Rivash’s intro consists entirely of a string of direct quotes and paraphrases of Biblical verses, each of which describes a raging, charging, butting, trampling, goring beasts – specifically rams, goats, and bulls. He then goes on to accuse R. Galipapa of being overly dismissive of greater, earlier authorities like Rashi and Rabbenu Tam. The meaning of his metaphor, and his primary criticism of R. Galipapa, is clear: You, Rabbi Galipapa, are like a raging beast, completely out of control, taking on sages who are way above your pay grade. Indeed, Rivash goes on to explicitly assail R. Galipapa for his lack of deference to earlier sages and for the arrogance and hubris he displays by dismissing earlier opinions. One can imagine these criticisms and the “raging bull” metaphor being applied to rabbis in any age, if they are deemed overly dismissive of inherited tradition and canonic precedent, or who have no qualms openly and defiantly taking on venerated practices and accepted authorities, past and present alike.

There is a subtler point here as well. Rivash goes on to engage the substance of R. Galipapa’s positions and even accepts one of them (on the correct text of Kol Nidre). The introduction to the responsum is a rhetorical tour de force, filled with allusions and bitingly critical (not “gently reproving” at all), but devoid of prooftexts. Indeed, there could have been no text that required one to consult the views of the Tosafists before rendering a decision. Rivash is making a claim – a novel claim – about the canon that must be mastered in order to become a halakhic authority, and he backs it up with pure rhetoric. He clearly felt that simply refuting R. Galipapa’s arguments on halakhic grounds would have been insufficient. Rather, he felt it was necessary to directly confront a rabbi (several years senior to Rivash, it is worth noting) who was directly challenging the mode of study and decision-making that had developed in Christian Spain ever since Ramban, more than a century earlier, expanded the local rabbinic curriculum to include the teachings of the French sages.

Perhaps Rivash thought he could persuade Rabbi Galipapa. Alternatively, he was almost certainly aware that his responsa, like those of earlier sages, were read and passed around among disciples and in centers of Jewish learning. In that case, his introduction was more for the broader audiences that for an audience of one. Regardless of his intention, and regardless, even, of which of them was correct with respect to the points of law under debate, the effect was that Rivash, more than 600 years later, still has an audience and remains an integral part of the study of halakhah, whereas R. Galipapa is barely remembered. Halakhic history has accorded Rivash and R. Galipapa the same respect that they accorded the Tosafists. The one who showed them honor is shown honor; the one who ignored them is ignored. This, I think, tells us a great deal about how halakhah functions and adapts within traditional Jewish societies.

What does this have to do with place names, though?

Around Yom Kippur time, I went to look up what Rivash wrote about Kol Nidre in responsum #394. After a few lines I burst out laughing. My family was surprised; hysterical laughter is not the sort of reaction one expects from someone studying a a book of she’elot u-teshuvot.

I had read the first few lines, the address and Rivash’s “raging bull” metaphor, and something clicked, something that makes this metaphor more than perfect, something that made me laugh out loud at a joke cracked by a major halakhist over 600 years ago. It was not until after Shabbat that I could confirm my theory, but I already knew that this was no coincidence. The very first word of this responsum is the name of the city where R. Galipapa was rabbi:


Super Rabbi

Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793) is one of the most fascinating characters in Jewish history and in the history of halakhah. He was involved in a number of major controversies affecting eighteenth-century European Jewry: the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy, attempts to purge Frankist and Sabbatean elements from Jewish communities, the Cleves get controversy and several other high-profile cases of agunot, divorce, and adultery. Mori Ve-Rabi, Rabbi Dr. Dovid Katz (he was my [Elli’s] first Jewish history teacher, in high school, 25+ years ago), demonstrates in his dissertation that it would me more correct to say that he inserted himself into these controversies, even while he was still a young prodigy studying in the Brody kloyz.

The masterful book by Mori Ve-Rabi Dr. Maoz Kahana (my [Elli’s] thesis adviser) analyzes Rabbi Landau’s return to the Talmud, its commentaries, and the classic halakhic codes both as an intellectual movement toward halakhic purism and empiricism – a movement that Kahana traces to the Brody kloyz – purged of the mystical practices and folk traditions that had accreted to the body of halakhah over the centuries (comparable to the movement of his contemporary, the Vilna Gaon), and as a pragmatic matter: by marginalizing the role of mysticism in halakhah, he could be more tolerant of those who studied mystical tracts and espoused mystical notions that were suspected of containing heretical elements, as long as such notions did not bleed into practice. Kahana’s work demonstrates the dynamism of Jewish intellectual currents in the eighteenth century, thus upending the prevailing view, primarily associated with Jacob Katz, that a relatively stable “traditional” Jewish society underwent a “crisis” beginning with the rise of the Berlin Haskalah in the last decades of the eighteenth century. It turns out that the preceding stability was not so stable after all, and elements of crisis emerged well before the Berlin Haskalah did. This implies a call for a revisionist view of modern Jewish history, one that will pay closer attention to the phenomenal Jewish creativity in the early modern period; Rabbi Landau is thus a key figure in this revision.

We should note that there is yet another scholarly treatment of Rabbi Landau’s career to be published recently: Prof. Sharon Flatto’s dissertation and book. We concede that we have yet read her work; however, the fact that Rabbi Landau is the subject of three doctoral dissertations over the past fifteen years or do indicates that he is getting his recognition as a major player in Jewish intellectual history.

Rabbi Landau was a prolific writer. We have his commentaries on the Talmud (Tziyun La-nefesh Hayah) and on Shulhan Arukh (Dagul Me-revava), numerous sermons and homilies, and, of course, his responsa, Noda Bi-Yehudah. The titles he gave to his halakhic works, which translated as “known in Judah” (based on Tehilim 76:2) and “preeminent among ten thousand” (Shir Ha-shirim 5:10) – both of which, incidentally, describe God Himself in their original contexts – exhibit no small amount of self-esteem and support Katz’s thesis that Rabbi Landau actively sought to bolster his reputation across the Jewish world.

The first volume of Noda Bi-Yehuda was published in 1776, during Rabbi Landau’s lifetime. It contains 276 responsa. The second volume was published posthumously by his son Shmuel in 1810. It contains 580 responsa, of which over 60 were written by Shmuel Landau, not his father. Almost all of the responsa in the second volume were written after the publication of the first. That is, volumes 1 and 2 represent distinct parts of his career. So when we mapped Noda Bi-Yehudah, we built in a tool that allows for a comparison between the first and second volumes. To be sure, there is evidence that a number of Rabbi Landau’s responsa were stolen during the course of a fire in 1775 (see p. 21 of Katz’s dissertation, n. 54), so volume 1 might not give an accurate portrayal of his sphere of influence during the early part of his career. Of course, as we have noted, published responsa are always curated and edited, so we must be careful whenever we map. That said, there’s something very counter-intuitive that emerges here:

Volume 1 of Noda Bi-Yehudah is scattered across a wider geographic area than Volume 2, even though it contains only about half the number of responsa and was composed earlier. His sphere of influence seems to shrink! Volume 2 is much more densely concentrated in Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary, whereas Volume 1 includes more responsa to Germany and Poland. Some of this is not surprising: Volume 1 includes responsa he wrote in Brody, Yampil, and Prague, whereas the responsa included in Volume 2 were almost all written in Prague. This can explain the shift from Poland to Central Europe, but leaves Germany as an open question.

This requires further investigation, but we can tentatively suggest that Rabbi Landau wanted the contents of the book to reflect its title and shape his reputation. Whether he actively sought interlocutors in more dispersed communities or specifically selected for publication his more geographically diverse responsa, he wanted to show that he was “known in Judah”. Katz suggests that he published when he did because he was angling for the newly created post of chief rabbi of Galicia (for which, by dint of his Galician origins and Austrian patriotism, he was an ideal candidate, though he did not get the job).

The implication is that Rabbi Landau had a certain geographic consciousness. He was aware that a greater reach implied greater halakhic authority and had a mental map of his sphere of influence, or at least of the sphere of influence he wished to project to his readers.

The Hungarian Succession

One of the questions that we think HaMapah can help answer is the dynamics of succession. When a posek dies or is otherwise incapacitated, who picks up the slack? Does it diffuse among multiple poskim or is there an heir apparent?

It is safe to say that we will see different patterns emerge as the project continues, but today we are going to look at a fairly elegant series of successions in Hungary during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Hatam Sofer, the subject of several posts thus far, was, by the time he passed away in late 1839, the leading posek in Hungary. Three poskim who served the same territory after his passing were Rabbi Yehudah (or Mahari) Aszod (1794-1866), author of Shu”t Yehudah Ya’aleh; Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815-1871), the son of Hatam Sofer and author of Shu”t Ketav Sofer; and Rabbi Moshe Schick, author of Shu”t Maharam Schick (1807-1879).

Let’s look at a map of the responsa of these four poskim (including Hatam Sofer). As always, opening separately and using the selectors is recommended (but today more so than usual).

The similarity of each posek’s map to the others is remarkable, and we will come back to this.

Now let’s look at the dates of the responsa. The data contained in Mahari Aszod’s responsa is somewhat sparse, but we have dates for a good proportion of responsa by Ketav Sofer and Maharam Schick.

It should be noted that nothing is proven, and that the picture that we see is conjectural, and our roles but the pattern seems pretty clear: There is a “passing of the mantle” from Mahari Aszod to Ketav Sofer to Maharam Schick. Ketav Sofer, it seems, does not become the leading posek in Hungary until Mahari Aszod’s death (and subsequent portrait!) in 1866. When Ketav Sofer’s health began to decline, Maharam Schick took his place as the leading Hungarian posek. It is actually quite amazing to see how many of Maharam Schick’s responsa were penned in the last decade of his life.

The portrait in question

Returning to the similarity of the maps, Moshe has developed tools that will quantify the geographical similarity of the spheres of authority of any two poskim. This will be very useful for tracing things like succession, demarcating cultural boundaries, and demonstrating reach. We will devote a separate post to these. For now, it suffices to say that the geographic similarity of these four poskim is high enough that our categorization of them as “Hungarian poskim” holds water.[1]

[1] Simply put, we create a vector of the number of responsa to each city for each posek, and then take the cosine of the angle between them. Alternatively, we’ll take that vector and map to a binary vector, again, with each city its own dimension, and then take the angle between those two.  We generally use an averaged version of the two methods.

World Cup Edition

In honor of the World Cup we thought we’d post a bit on responsa to France and Croatia.

Let’s start with France.

Though it lies outside our main focus (for now), at the beginning of this project we mapped Dr. Pinchas Roth’s data set for the responsa of Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre, or Ri HaZaqen. Dr. Roth has been thinking about mapping responsa for some time now, and has been a supporter of HaMapah from the beginning. He and Prof. Rami Reiner, another friend of HaMapah, are preparing a critical edition of Ri HaZaqen’s responsa.

The methodology here is slightly different, focusing not on explicit addresses but rather mentions:

The pattern is interesting. There’s a clear view of the Tosafist heartland, if you will, in Northern France. And then, remarkably given the era and vastly inferior communications, there are relevant areas quite far from Ramerupt, Troyes, and Dampierre. The distribution is not smaller than 19th century poskim, though the volume is. The enormous advancements in communications will get many more people within the bounds of your cultural sphere to ask you questions, but they didn’t make the sphere bigger.

France’s role in the history of halakhah is well known, of course, but we can still have some love for Croatia. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city of Ragusa, today’s Dubrovnik, was a major financial hub. More than a hundred responsa from Ottoman poskim like R. Shmuel de Medina and R. David HaCohen mention Ragusa or are addressed to it.

Perhaps the most important posek to reside in Croatia was R. David Pardo (1719-1792), author of Mikhtam Le-David, who served in the rabbinate in Spalatro. Among his responsa, in Even HaEzer 9, he addresses how the name of the city would be written in a get. The contemporary name for this city is Split, but Rabbi Pardo, sadly, doesn’t add “דמתקריא Splitsville”.

The Republic of Venice in the mid-18th Century. Note their control of the Dalmatian Coast.

A recurring pattern of note is the cities mentioned–the most prominently featured are Ragusa and Sarajevo. Modern Croatia, a pretty artificial construction, is split; the lower handle of the pliers, if you will, along the Dalmatian coast, on the Adriatic Sea falls into the Venetian, Greek, and Ottoman orbits, and most of the responsa from there are to Saloniki or Venice (R. Pardo was Venetian himself), and often dealing with travelers to and from Sarajevo, placing Split and Ragusa squarely within the context of traditional Balkan Jewry. However, from the northern handle of the pliers, we see responsa from Hatam Sofer to Osijek and Darda, giving us a rough lay of the land and the border between cultural appendages of Hungary and Balkan/Sephardic Jewry.

Among other notable responsa, are Maharshakh 1:138 and Maharashdam Hoshen Mishpat 438, which see the same case–nearly verbatim! A blatant case of historical posek-shopping!

At the end of day, though, much like on the pitch, Croatia can’t quite measure up to France. But a better run than you might have expected.

Signal and Noise: Part I

[Note: Sorry for taking so long. Elli wrote the following post. We were going to post this earlier, but several long and fruitful arguments about signal and noise delayed it, and brought it to the point where it was best split up for size. We have more material ready on this, and we should be able to get back to posting more frequently. Enjoy. –Moshe]

We have given a lot of attention to the “shape” of rabbinic careers over time. Specifically, we have looked at R. Yaakov Ettlinger and R. Moshe Feinstein and tried to consider what may have affected the shape. Factors like R. Ettlinger’s editorship of Der Treue Zionswächter and R. Feinstein’s presence in the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s religious purges, as well as his writing and publishing spike in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we argued, can help explain and understand how their careers developed and how they related to their own writings.

More broadly speaking, however, the goal of HaMapah is not to explain these phenomena as much as it is to show that they exist. Let us illustrate this with a table that shows the number of published responsa written by Hatam Sofer by year.

[Note: the data here is based on Hebrew year – 3760, not the actual Gregorian year. Our date parsing tools are accurate to the day where possible, however, choosing where to assign dates with year only and no further data to the Gregorian year is a bit of a question and a possible noise source].
Another map shows where the responsa were written to (for those with both dates and addresses) during those years. (ideally, open it in a new tab)

What we see here is very uneven. There is a general upward trend from the turn of the nineteenth century until the end of his life, but there is lots of variance from year to year. Before we ask how to account for that, we must ask what exactly needs to be accounted for. We should expect a certain degree of variance from year to year simply because that’s how life works. But what should we expect?

Let us discuss baseball for a moment. Unlike most other sports, much of baseball can be broken down into isolated events: pitcher versus batter. The outcome of any individual event is wildly uncertain, but over time patterns emerge. Certain features of a batter’s performance–the rate at which he strikes out, the rate at which he walks, the rate at which balls put in play result in hits–stabilize over time. There are also local environmental factors that come into play. Smaller parks tend to inflate offense and depress defense, while roomier parks have the opposite effect. Factors like wind, humidity, temperature, and altitude also affect performance. Strength of opponent is, of course, a significant factor. And, of course, there are factors in the personal lives of the players that can have an effect (usually detrimental): injury, illness, exhaustion, and grief, to name a few.

And then there is also simple, blind luck. There is only so much control that a batter can have over a ball hurtling toward him at speeds approaching (or exceeding) 100 miles per hour. Sometimes a well-struck ball finds the glove of a well-positioned fielder. Sometimes the weakest contact results in a base hit. That’s the way the ball bounces.

A basic idea of advanced statistical analysis is to try and isolate the relevant factors, the “underlying” performance of a player, that will give a better picture of who the player really is. It allows us to quantify who has been lucky and who unlucky, and it allows us to determine the specific skill at which a given player excels (or fails). We are able to separate the signal from the noise.

Because of all of the factors mentioned–the “noise”–there is a great deal of year-to-year variance in the actual results of a player’s performance. The overall trend is toward a late-20s peak followed by decline, but the number and rate of hits, home runs, doubles, etc. varies greatly from year to year. Advanced analytics develop different kinds of tools that “smooth” the jagged edges of the year-to-year variance by eliminating or accounting for more and more noise.

It is important to recognize that the “noise” itself has meaning. Poor performance is poor performance, even if it is not indicative of a player’s true talent level. A lucky win still goes in the W column. A player whose home run totals are inflated by Coors Field in Denver still has those home runs to his credit. When a batter faces a pitcher, he either will or won’t get on base. He either will or won’t strike out. This is what gives the game its drama: after all the analysis, the players must still go and play the game, whose outcome is far from certain. All advanced statistics can do is give a good idea of what to expect from a player–a better idea, in fact, than “traditional” statistics that count (noisy) results. They do not tell us what happened or predict with certainty what will happen, though they can predict what will happen with substantially better accuracy than traditional statistics. For instance, FIP predicts next year ERA better than ERA.

Can some of these insights be applied to the study of responsa? Certainly, although there is a certain tension here between the historian and the statistician. For the historian, each responsum is a discrete historical event to be studied on its own. To the extent that the “noise” is part of the event and can be determined, the historian wishes to do so. They are interested in what actually happened.

Statisticians, on the other hand, want to isolate performance from all but the most directly relevant factors. As long as the number of responsa that a given posek wrote in a year is somewhat consistent with expected year-to-year variance, it does not trouble them too much. Whatever may have inflated or depressed the number of responsa that year, even if it was not sheer luck, should be ignored when trying to determine the longer arc of the posek’s career, if the spike or dip is within the typical noise pattern. They want to see transition periods, when the posek breaks out (or in stages), if he declines at the end of his life due to health,  and other larger trends, not blips and aberrations. They’ll want this:

Hatam Sofer & EMAs
Hatam Sofer & EMAs

We’ll get in to more details soon. Stay tuned.

Ockham’s Razor and Hatam Sofer

Let’s start with a trivia question: Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) sent responsa to every single Jewish community (in existence at the time) in one modern-day country. What country is it?

Not long ago, I (Moshe) was in the backseat of my grandfather’s car, and we were schmoozing about HaMapah. I mentioned we were mapping the responsa of Hatam Sofer and his first question was: “and was he sent questions from all of Europe?”

We’ll get to that in a minute.

One of our central goals is to try to understand the halakhic world as it was perceived by people at the particular time, not as we presently interpret it. Today one might hear in the oylem that “Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to all of Europe”. But is this assertion in fact, true?

Let’s try to refine the question a bit. Europe is a big place and Jews were only in some parts of it. Poskim only sent responsa to places with Jews, so “all of Europe” really means “every Jewish area in Europe.” So to answer the trivia question we opened with, Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to the only two towns in Switzerland where Jews were allowed to live at the time.[1] Thus, trivial as it may sound, in Jewish terms, Hatam Sofer sent teshuvot to all of Switzerland.

But even on this relatively lenient standard, the prevailing assumptions are all wrong. Out of 675 responsa of Hatam Sofer for which we have place data, a grand total of three were sent anywhere within the vast Russian Empire. While it is possible that he in fact wrote several hundred teshuvot to Russia, and they were all chucked into a fire by some angry Hungarian muttering obscenities about Litvaks, this strikes me as incredibly improbable.[2] Ockham’s Razor tells us that we should dismiss the common belief. I also want to preempt an objection–“but look at how widely he’s quoted”–by noting that all of Hatam Sofer’s works were published posthumously.

Let us compare Hatam Sofer to the person with whom we would most intuitively associate him: his father-in-law and near exact contemporary–they were born within a year of each other and died within two–Rabbi Akiva Eger. Both established themselves far from where they were born but in German-speaking areas: Hatam Sofer was born in Frankfurt but established himself in Central Europe: first in Dresnitz (Strasnice, Czechia), then Mattersdorf (Mattersburg, Austria), and finally, for the last 30+ years of his life, in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia). R. Akiva Eger, on the other hand, was born in Eisenstadt (Austria–very close to Mattersdorf; both are part of the Siebengemeinden, the “Sheva Kehilot” in Burgenland, or, in Elli’s preferred parlance, “the Seven Dorfs”). His rabbinic career took him north into Silesia and then to the territories that Prussia had recently sliced off of Poland. The last two decades of his life he was the rabbi of Posen (Poznan, Poland).

Today, they are considered transcendent figures. However, in their lifetimes, they were not transcendent. Consider this map of the two of them, and see for yourself what they did not transcend. (In a new tab)

(Hatam Sofer is blue, R. Akiva Eger is red)

The sorting effect is really dramatic–the choice between R. Akiva Eger and Hatam Sofer falls cleanly on Austrian vs. Prussian lines. The main outliers for both R. Akiva Eger and Hatam Sofer are one another. An inordinate number of responsa written by Hatam Sofer to Prussia were to R. Akiva Eger, and an inordinate number of responsa written by R. Akiva Eger to the Austrian Empire were to Hatam Sofer and his son, R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer).

Why does psak tend to stay within the same country? There’s no per se halakhic reason; the halakhic system and methodology, as generally laid out, should not assign any value to the Austria/Prussia border. However, how the system “should” work is ultimately not the point.

Halakhah, and I thank Russ Roberts and EconTalk for inspiring this point (Elli touched on some of this in our first post, but I prefer a different angle, specifically, less top-down and more bottom-up or agent driven, perhaps more Hayekian?) is a case of emergent order. Nobody designed our modern halakhic apparatus. Nobody assigned you to a specific posek, and no “posek ha-dor” was ever voted on and elected (at least not in the last millenium). It is an organic, spontaneous, informal system that arises from the decisions of independent agents. These independent agents might think that their posek should be a good Prussian, and there is little that can be done about it. A few generations later, different independent agents might decide that Hatam Sofer was the posek ha-dor of a generation when none of those agents were alive.

Today, any respectable beit midrash needs a Hiddushei Rabbi Akiva Eger and a Responsa Hatam Sofer, yet the converse is not true: Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eger and Hiddushei Hatam Sofer are not mainstays in the same way. No grand theory of halakhah can easily account for why their works should be so bifurcated in terms of importance. How is it that R. Shabbetai Cohen wrote arguably the most important commentary on Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah, and an utterly forgotten book on Tur Yoreh Deah? This is emergent order created by the independent actions of independent agents.[3]

One last note: Hatam Sofer is interesting. Unlike almost everyone else we’ve done so far, who were usually “just” poskim, he was an influential pedagogue. His students express tremendous love for him, not just as a posek or a scholarly role model, but in a personal way, too. Our operative theory here is that his influence really begins to expand as his students take up positions around Hungary. This can be seen on a map of Hatam Sofer’s responsa as function of time:

(In a new tab)

[1] These are Ettlingen and Lengnau, which are actually only a couple kilometers apart; they even shared their cemetery.

[2] Though as a dependent probability, if an angry Hungarian did chuck them into a fire, it seems pretty probable that he was muttering obscenities about Litvaks.

[3] F.A. Hayek writes (Law, Legislation and Liberty, pp. 118-119):

“The judge, in other words, serves, or tries to maintain and improve, a going order which nobody has designed, an order that has formed itself without the knowledge and often against the will of authority, that extends beyond the range of deliberate organization on the part of anybody, and that is not based on the individuals doing anybody’s will, but on their expectations becoming mutually adjusted. The reason why the judge will be asked to intervene will be that the rules which secure such a matching of expectations are not always observed, or clear enough, or adequate to prevent conflicts even if observed. Since new situations in which the established rules are not adequate will constantly arise, the task of preventing conflict and enhancing the compatibility of actions by appropriately delimiting the range of permitted actions is of necessity a never-ending one, requiring not only the application of already established rules but also the formulation of new rules necessary for the preservation of the order of actions. In their endeavour to cope with new problems by the application of ‘principles’ which they have to distil from the ratio decidendi of earlier decisions, and so to develop these inchoate rules (which is what ‘principles’ are) that they will produce the desired effect in new situations, neither the judges nor the parties involved need to know anything about the nature of the resulting overall order, or about any ‘interest of society’ which they serve, beyond the fact that the rules are meant to assist the individuals in successfully forming expectations in a wide range of circumstances.”

I think every word here applies to halakhah, even more so than the original, given how the selection of the judge/posek is a case of spontaneous order in and of itself.

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.

Introducing Binyan Zion (As seen in Ami Magazine!)

Readers who are also subscribers to Ami Magazine (and Ami Magazine readers who learned about us from Yossi Krausz’s awesome profile) know that we have mapped out Responsa Binyan Zion, by Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871). R. Ettlinger gained prominence as rabbi of Altona, Germany, part of the famed triple community of AHU, along with Hamburg and Wandsbeck. This map gives us a look at a different region, a bit earlier in the 19th century.

For now, we want you to enjoy playing around with the map to see what you make of it. In a few days, Elli will post something about what we might be able to learn by plotting Binyan Tziyon geographically and by date, and I will analyze the similarity and dissimilarity of Binyan Zion to other poskim of the age. (For starters, look at Galicia on the maps below, and ponder what it means.) We’re mostly done with both Hatam Sofer and Maharam Schick, and we hope to post them both soon, once we’ve removed a few inaccuracies and filled in a couple of gaps.

The first map here is a heat map of Binyan Zion. You can enable Maharsham layers to compare if you want. I recommend viewing it in a separate tab, and viewing it on a computer will give you the best experience. Mouse over / click on cities for more info.

And to get ready for Elli’s post, here’s an animated view of the Binyan Zion (again, I recommend opening a separate tab). Note the bars at the bottom, which gives the number of responsa per year. Is that what you would expect a rabbinic career to look like? Either way, the date tools enable us to do some pretty cool things.

One final point: off to the right of the page there’s a box where you can enter your email address and automatically get an email when we post to the blog.

Zoom In

Last week we used the Maharsham to take a look at some large scale phenomena, especially cultural boundaries. Now we’re going to zoom in on some of the things we noticed that are going on within those boundaries.

One of the major questions we are trying to help answer with this project is whether rabbinic authority can be quantified. Can we use metrics to give a sense of how important Maharsham is? And if so, how?

We have already looked at number of responsa and geographical spread. Those are important data. But are all responsa created equal? If a gabbai asks a rav whether the congregation should skip tachanun on Erev Tu BiShvat, and the rav sits down and writes a lengthy treatise in response, does it really tell us anything about his authority? There are certain types of questions that demonstrate real influence. If people carry on Shabbat based on an eruv approved by a particular rabbi, over and against competitors, it indicates authority. The higher the stakes, and the more lives the question affects, the more important the responsum, and the more authority demonstrated by the responding rabbi.

Let’s take a more concrete example. Through volume 8 of Igrot Moshe, there are 1805 published responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (RMF). Of those, 48 are written to Rabbi Yaakov Kantrowitz (h/t Michael Pitkowsky). R. Kantrowitz was hardly submitting to RMF’s authority, as he was at least 20 years older than him. Moreover, almost all of these responsa are what we might call “recreational”. These are not responses to halakhic questions, but long letters written by a severely underemployed rabbi in the early years of the Soviet Union (there is not much for a rabbi to do when religion is effectively banned). These 48 responsa to not evince much rabbinic authority.

As for spread, RMF’s responsa are very clustered. He runs up his score in particular cities and with particular people–about 90 are to Memphis (mainly to Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt), for instance, or 5% of the total (we’re still working on quantifying how many to NYC, and whether to count different boroughs as different cities, but we will get there).

Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Top questioners in Igros Moshe. [Click to enlarge.] Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Now let’s go back to Maharsham. Of more than 1600 responsa, very few are “recreational.” They are all based on real, practical questions. Moreover, the top destination is Krakow, which received 29. In total, he wrote to 437 different places (out of the 1427 addresses we’ve identified). That is simply a mind-boggling number. And no more than 2% of his responsa come from any one place or person, except perhaps for his hometown of Berezhany. Nothing like RMF’s 5% to Memphis.

The point of this exercise is not to minimize the greatness of RMF. Rather, it is to show what a big deal Maharsham was, and he was a Big Deal. This has largely been forgotten over the course of a century of Lithuanian supremacism. Hundreds of community rabbis from hundreds of communities asked him their questions. His influence in his time and place was massive. There’s even a book called Maharsham: The Last Posek.

Yet for all his influence, there are certain places that his authority simply did not penetrate.

Drohobych was a huge Galician community in Maharsham’s later years. In 1910 it had over 15,000 Jews. Yet Maharsham addressed not a single responsum there. It’s not due to a regional lack of influence–he has 19 responsa to Stryi, which is less than 20 miles away and two-thirds the size. Another glaring hole is Przemyśl (Pshemyshl in Yiddish; vowels are overrated). Przemyśl’s Jewish population was slightly larger than Drohobych’s. Again, there’s no broader regional absence, as many nearby villages and towns have responsa addressed there, yet the big city is missing.

A final example: On the eve of WWI, the community of Sighet numbered c. 8,000 Jews–a sizable community–while nearby Bychkiv had just over 1,000. Yet only 5 responsa were addressed to Sighet, while seventeen were addressed to Bychkiv. In contrast to the other examples, Bychkiv is punching well above its weight.

We can posit explanations for the three cities with low (or nonexistent) numbers. Przemyśl was the seat of Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes, author of Beit Yitzhak and probably Maharsham’s main rival in Galicia in the generation after R. Yosef Shaul Natansohn. He was rabbi of Przemyśl for a long time, whereupon he was succeeded by his nephew and disciple. So Przemyśl remained under his “jurisdiction”, so to speak, even after his departure to Lviv.

As for Drohobych, we note that Rabbi Yitzhak Leib Sofer (1848-1907) was the city’s rabbi, and he had other influences: he was the son of Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer) and thus a scion of the greatest rabbinic family in Western Hungary. If anything, his presence in Drohobych indicates that the Sofer family’s sphere of influence was expanding into Galicia.

As for Sighet, by this time its rabbinate was firmly controlled by the Teitelbaum family.

To understand what’s going on here, we borrow a concept from astronomy. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defines a planet as: “a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”[1]

A major posek like Maharsham exerts a massive gravitational pull on the entire region. He vacuumed up the questions from hundreds of towns and villages in Galicia. However, there were a few cities whose rabbis “cleared the neighborhood”. They remained the dominant gravitational force in those cities. It seems that there were cultural institutions–like a family rabbinate, for example–that were able to resist outside influence, or individuals with enough authority. In turn, Galicia’s cultural identity and rabbinic tradition is powerful enough to clear its neighborhood and monopolize questions from within its territory, in contrast to regions like Volhynia and Podolia, which send a large chunk of their questions to Galicia. Another example of a city that cleared its neighborhood might be Prague, which seems to have sent very few questions elsewhere over an extended period of time.[2]

These observations are tentative. We need a lot more research before we have anything conclusive, but we would not have even known to ask the question without the data. And we think it holds promise.

For now, think of this post as a study aid and as a way to quantify (and appreciate) rabbinic authority. We will tweak the methodology as we have more data to work with and as we are able to use more advanced metrics and software. This is really just the beginning.

That, in turn, brings us back to a feisty little Carpathian town that punches above its weight: Bychkiv, to which we will return in the next post.

[1] For those wondering at home, Pluto lost planethood over (c).

[2] Expect more on this later, but, in short, we’ve come near completion on a few more poskim, starting from 1800 or so, and we’ve seen virtually nothing to Prague and fairly little to Czechia as a whole.

Once a Galitzianer…

As much as we would like to claim to be the first to create a heat map of a responsa collection, we are not. Dr. Haim Gertner, the Director of the Yad Vashem Archives Division has that distinction; he is our Bill James. In his 1996 MA thesis[1], he produced the following heat map of Rabbi Shlomo Kluger’s (1785-1869, Brody, Galicia; henceforth RSK) responsa:

Haim Gertner's heatmap for R. Shlomo Kluger

In the above map, Galicia is the only province in the darkest region, and the next level consists of four Russian territories that had been part of Poland before the partitions: Congress Poland, Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev. Though Galicia had been annexed to Austria more than half a century prior to Rabbi Kluger’s most active period (c. 1838-1864, per Gertner), his sphere of influence extended across the border between Russia and Austria (later Austria-Hungary), yet only penetrated those parts of the Habsburg realms–Northeast Hungary (Unterland) and, to a lesser extent, Transylvania–whose Jewish populations were growing due, in no small part, to Jewish immigrants from Galicia. Moldavia, too, fits this profile. We can conclude that RSK’s sphere of influence was Polish. It crossed imperial boundaries, but did not cross the Pripet Marshes to Lite, the territories of the defunct Duchy of Lithuania, to the northeast, nor to the more Germanized (and later Magyarized) communities of Oberland to the south and west.

Let us take a moment to discuss cultural borders and borderlands. One can map, with great precision, almost any cultural manifestation, from Orioles and Nationals fandom and the borderland between them, to what one calls flavored fizzy beverages. Things get interesting when a territory produces very similar maps for very different cultural expressions. In the present case, RSK’s sphere of influence largely corresponds to the areas where Mideastern and Southeastern (as opposed to Litvish and Western) dialects of Yiddish were spoken[2], and where the gefilte fish was sweet, not savory[3]. It turns out that our guiding question–What goes into a rabbi’s decision about who to turn to for answers to difficult questions?–is answered in part by culture. Rabbis were more likely to entrust such questions to a greater rabbi within the same cultural sphere. That is, in the case of Galicia, to a rabbi who made latkes from kertoflen, not bulbes.

This divide also corresponds to the political division between the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania, and we see that the cultural divide persisted even after the political boundary became defunct. However, Gertner surmised that the Jews of different empires would converge internally and diverge from one another as time went on, thus reshaping these cultural borders. Galician Jews would develop stronger affinities with Austrian, Hungarian, and Moravian Jews, while ties with Volhynia and Podolia would be weakened, and so forth.

We can actually test this hypothesis with our data on Maharsham’s 1444 tagged responsa.  The heat map we posted in our first post looks an awful lot like the RSK map, indicating that those cultural borders persisted right up to World War I.

A better way of visualizing this is to plot the Maharsham data onto a map of Europe’s year 1700 political borders. 1072 (74%) were sent to areas within the Kingdom of Poland, against 18 (1%) to the Duchy of Lithuania. The internal division of a confederation that had ceased to exist a hundred years before Maharsham’s responsa-writing prime is the most salient border in his sphere of influence.

Maharsham's responsa overlaid on European internal borders in 1700
Maharsham’s responsa overlaid on European internal borders in 1700

Returning to the Maharsham heat map, we can break things down more precisely. 790, or 55%, of his responsa were to Galicia. Looking at the dots of individual cities, we see that the responsa were evenly distributed throughout Galicia, more or less. Elsewhere in the Polish Jewish sphere of influence, there are 134 responsa addressed to Congress Poland (9%), and 227 to the eastern Ukrainian regions (16%; this includes the 13 responsa to Kherson, which were all to Odessa, and the 41 sent to Bukovina). Moreover, to the extent that Maharsham’s influence expanded beyond Galicia to the south and west, it was to regions that were very close to Galicia and to which Galician Jews were migrating in significant numbers, especially Northern Moldavia (37), Maramaros (78), and Transcarpathia (27). An additional 10% of his responsa went to these regions. That brings us to 90% of his responsa.

In all, there is a slight shift to the south and west in comparison with RSK. RSK wrote more responsa, both proportionally and in terms of raw numbers, to Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev than Maharsham did, and most of the responsa that Maharsham sent into Russia were to places relatively close to the border with Austria. On the other hand, Maharsham had more of an influence in Hungary, especially those regions of Unterland that were near Galicia. One can even see that there were a number of communities between Budapest and Galicia–Eger, Mad, and Bodrogkeresztúr (Kerestir), to name a few–that sent their questions to Maharsham (2% of the total). The overall picture is one of striking similarity with a slight tilt away from the Ukrainian interior and toward Eastern Hungary.

Next post will delve a bit deeper into the data and look at some individual cities. For those who want to play along at home, look at Sighet, Przemysl, Cluj, Drohobych, and a town that readers will be becoming familiar with: Bychkiv.

[1] H. Gertner, “Gevulot ha-Hashpa’ah shel Rabbanut Galitzya be-Mahatzit ha-Rishonah shel ha-Me’ah ha-Tesha Estrei: R. Shlomo Kluger ke-Mikreh Mivhan” (“The Sphere of Influence of the Galician Rabbinate in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century: Rabbi Shlomo Kluger as a Test Case”), MA thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996. We thank Prof. Shaul Stampfer for referring us to this work.

[2] There are two maps of the Yiddish dialects out there. We like this one because it shows that Oberland (Western Hungary) transitioned from Western to Mideastern Yiddish, and we like this one because it’s demarcation of the border between Litvish and Southeastern Yiddish is more detailed and precise.

[3] Note that the line drawn on the map associated with this article does not correspond, in any meaningful way, to the actual dividing line between sweet and savory gefilte fish.