Two New Articles

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

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

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

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

What Subscription Lists Tell Us about the Hungarian Yeshiva World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hometowns of yeshiva students at Dunaszerdahely

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

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

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

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

Recent and Upcoming Talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are delighted to be participating in this half-day conference on Monday, May 31. It will be an opportunity to showcase our projects as well as the other projects at our “home base” of the E-lijah Lab at the University of Haifa.

We are involved in two sessions. In one, Prof. Wodzinski, the lead researcher for the Prenumeranten Project, will be presenting some of our newest findings and insights, including a lot of material that we have not discussed here or in our other lectures. Prof. Avriel Bar-Levav, a leading historian of the Hebrew book, will respond.

Moshe and I will present a new facet of our research on metadata in responsa, specifically, about understanding who includes metadata and why. Responding to our presentation will be Dr. Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg, whose research focuses on the (re)organization of material in books, and especially on collections of responsa.

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

For more information:…/innovationsindigitaljew…/home

Hope you can make it!

Presentation (in Hebrew) on HaMapah and Prenumeranten

Last week we gave a presentation (in Hebrew) in a series called “Homrah Ve-Ru’ah” for the Hadarim Center for Israeli-Jewish Culture. It’s a basic intro to our projects, but it includes some new findings. There’s also a fun Q&A session at the end.

Some Notes on Place Name Spellings

Some notes on some recent subscription lists we’ve come across and some comments on odd spellings of place names.

We have been following the “Jewish Miscellanies” blog by Jeffrey Maynard for a while. He consistently posts about the rare and interesting books in his collection, mainly, but not only, of Anglo Judaica. Some of the books in his collection have really interesting Prenumeranten lists.

One such book that he wrote about is “Zecher Ov” by Rev. Hanokh Henikh (Henry) Olivenstein, published in 1916. The author was a “Swiss-army Jew” who served communities in Wales. The subscribers include people from lots of places in the UK and elsewhere, but there’s a remarkable cluster of tiny little hamlets in southern Wales, where he ministered. Most of these places do not appear in Kagan’s index. Here’s a screenshot; you can explore further by typing “Wales” in the “English Name” text box in our Searchable Map.

Since the last update of the map, we’ve identified another place in this list: לאמבאראדאך is Llanbradach, Wales. The only place on the Zecher Ov list that we have not identified is נאוי which is in France (or was in 1916).

More recently, Maynard wrote about a volume of R. Meir Dan Plotzki’s Hemdat Yisrael that was published in 1924. The subscribers are from Belgium, England, the US (plus R. Yehuda Leib Graubart in Toronto), and Argentina. It’s a fascinating list that includes many American Orthodox rabbinic and lay leaders. We will have more to say on that in the future, as there are some similar lists.

One interesting feature of this list is the way that some city names are spelled. We have already written how Yiddish place name spellings are phonetic, and so subject to lots of variance, based on dialect. There is also variance based on regional modifiers. For example, if you live in Frankfurt am-Main, you refer to your hometown as Frankfurt. Likewise if you like in Frankfurt an der Oder. In some circumstances, however, you will have to specify which Frankfurt you refer to.

Predictably, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of places whose names mean, simply, “New City”. This includes anyplace named Neustadt or Nove Mesto or Villanova or Ujhely. Naples and Nablus and Newton fit the pattern, too. So when a Hebrew source mentions ניישטאט or עיר חדש, it can be a challenge to disambiguate.

Fortunately, most such places have an additional modifier. To take an example of a pretty famous place, consider Brisk. Today it is known as Brest, Belarus, and it’s easy to see how Brest and Brisk are cognates. But at various times, it was known officially as Brest-Litovsk. What’s the Litovsk? It simply means “Lithuanian”. So the Russian Brest-Litovsk, the Polish Brześć Litewski, and the Yiddish בריסק דליטא simply specify that the reference is to the Lithuanian Brisk, not a different one. In this case, the other one is Brześć Kujawski, בריסק דקויא, or Brest Kujavsk, in Poland.

[Sidebar: The idea that some people call Satmar “Sakmar” because it otherwise means “St. Mary” is silly. As the Brest/Brisk example illustrates, the t/k shift happens elsewhere, and in no language does Satmar or Satu Mare mean “St. Mary”. Perhaps one will argue that just as religious Jews changed Satmar to Sakmar to avoid invoking St. Mary, they changed Brest to Brisk to avoid naughty thoughts? There are other examples – like Saponta, a town very close to Satmar, which is known in Jewish sources as Spinka. At some point, we will post about all the different places in rabbinic sources that are named for saints and other elements of Christianity.]

We do not realize it, but we often do the same thing. To disambiguate the many Springfields, Salems, and Portlands in the USA, we use the state name. Locally, Springfield is Springfield, but in many cases one will need to specify whether one is referring to Illinois, Massachusetts, the fictional setting for “The Simpsons”, or one of the many other Springfields.

When the person writing out the subscriber lists knows about this, they will account for it and use a format similar to the familiar [City, ST] format. But what if they are not? Funny things happen. Consider this responsum from Maharsham:


The דאלעסטעסקא mentioned here is none other than Dallas, Texas. It got all smushed into one word, which is typical for European place names but not American ones.

That’s just one example, though. In the subscriber list for Hemdat Yisrael, we find no less than six examples:

לואי סווילקי

If you want to try to figure these out on your own, stop reading here. We will ID the places at the end of the post.

One peculiar thing here is that 4 of the 6 examples are from Massachusetts. Massachusetts is better represented on the subscriber list, as there were lots of small Jewish communities there, but that does not explain why 2/3 of these examples are from one state. Disambiguation can perhaps explain one of these examples, though we are doubtful about even that.

I (Elli) think that this reflects a peculiar habit of Massachusettsans to add “Mass” as a sort of suffix to cities in that state. If you heard a Massachusettsan speak and had no geographical knowledge, you might easily conclude that there’s a place called “Woostamass”. The transcriber of the subscription lists can easily have made such mistakes.

Anyhow, the places where city and state are contracted into one word (or two oddly-parsed words) are:
Holyoke, MA
Springfield, MA
Fall River, MA
Malden, MA
Denver, CO
Louisville, KY

If you have another theory, we’d love to hear it!

Rabbinic Wanderlust and Cultural Transfer

An immigrant from Poland to Tunisia in the 19th century tried to bridge cultural worlds while satisfying his wanderlust.

For the past ten years, it has been my delightful lot to help the elect of the human race, to be a deliverer and courier of all kinds of books, old and new, from Sefarad to Ashkenaz and from Ashkenaz to Sefarad. No distance was too great for me. The dry heat of Africa did not stop me, and the ice of Ashkenaz did not deter me….

I witnessed the wisdom of Ashkenaz rejoicing in the courtyards of Sefarad, and the sagacity of Sefarad raising her voice in the streets of Ashkenaz – and it was from me. I brought it about. Though I ate bread in misery, this legacy is more beautiful to me than the legacy of traders in gold and jewels….

Sweeter to my palate were dry bread dipped in stagnant water in the bowels of a ship and bread, dates, and water from a skin on a dune in the Arabian desert than every delicacy of kings and princes.

Sefer HaZikaron, Publisher’s Apologia, Livorno, 1845

Eliezer Ashkenazi was born in Poland in the early 19th century, but Tunis had become his hometown by the mid-1840s. According to his own account, financial circumstances forced him to abandon his yeshiva studies at the age of 17. It seems that his heart remained in the study hall, though, as he became a collector, dealer, copyist, and publisher of Jewish manuscripts.

Through NLI catalog, we can trace the manuscripts that passed through his hands: some he bought, some he copied (or co-copied), and some he commissioned others to copy (and then printed). One he left at the home of a friend in Modena, Italy, and never retrieved. The manuscripts were medieval and modern, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Some of them he saw or acquired in Tunis and elsewhere in North Africa, and others he came upon during his travels.

Like a one-man Mekize Nirdamim society, he published three books and facilitated the publication of several more, all of which consisted of unpublished treatises, letters, liturgical compositions, and commentaries. Of the three he published, all within the span of a decade, the first was Sefer Ha-Zikaron, whose preface, by Ashkenazi, is excerpted above. This book is a supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary by R. Avraham Bakrat, a rabbi who was expelled from Spain and ended up in Tunis in the early 16th century. Ashkenazi discovered the manuscript there and brought it to Livorno to print. He actually printed two editions in that year: one for Italy and one for North Africa; the latter lists sponsors from several Algerian cities: Mostaganem, Tlemcen, Constantine, and Algiers. The former contains several pages of prenumeranten as well as approbations from leading Italian rabbis like the famed Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto) and Yashar (Isaac Samuel Reggio). The list is apparently by order of city traveled, so we can chart his route across northern Italy (with a detour to Rome), from Trieste to Cuneo and on to Marseilles in France. He sold books in c. 40 different cities in all.

His next literary undertaking was four years later. He published Divrei Hakhamim, a compilation of 11 mostly medieval treatises with a clearly rationalist bent. This work was published in Metz. It, too, has several pages of noms des hommes genereux– the names (in French) of those generous people who pre-purchased the book. This list, too, is in order of visits, and here Ashkenazi takes us to almost 100 different places, mainly villages, in Alsace and Lorraine, along France’s border with Germany and the most heavily Jewish regions in 19th century France.

The third book, Ta’am Zekenim (whose title JE creepily translates as “The Taste of Old Men”) was published in Frankfurt in 1855. It is likewise a compilation of several older treatises, with an introduction by R. Eliakim Carmoly, a kindred spirit of Ashkenazi’s who had recently retired from being Belgium’s chief rabbi. There is barely a page of subscribers to this book, from a handful of larger cities. I do not know what accounts for this change in strategy, but it seems likely that he did not visit all of the cities where subscribers lived. I’ve combined the lists for Ta’am Zekenim and Divrei Hakhamim in one map.

The striking thing is that there is no overlap between the places in the Sefer Ha-Zikaron lists and the subsequent lists. It’s almost as though Ashkenazi wanted to tour a different part of the Jewish world when he published his second book. Having done Italy and Africa, he opted to tour France instead. He wrote the preface to Ta’am Zekenim in Marseille – the terminus of his prior tour – in 1854. From there, presumably, he sailed back to Tunis.

After 1855, he seems to have settled down a bit. In 1858, he wrote to Senior Sachs (we see you, Shneur) about the community in Tunis. This letter became the first in a series of dispatches to Ha-Levanon on the history and travails of this community; these articles, listed in the bibliography of the JE entry on Tunis, form the basis for Robert Hattal’s La Chronique d’Eliezer Ashkenazi : sur les juifs de Tunis. In 1868, he copied in Tunis a manuscript of correspondences between R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia (“Ramah”) and Provencal rabbis on behalf of Jehiel Brill, editor of Ha-Levanon, in Paris, who printed it.

It is not likely that Eliezer Ashkenazi would be inducted into the 19th century Hall of Fame of Jewish scholars, bibliophiles, and codicologists. It was a crowded century. He collaborated with some better-known scholars, like the aforementioned Shadal, Yashar, R. Carmoly, Brill, and Sachs, as well as Salomon Munk. Unlike some other, he really pounded the pavement. He had passion and knowledge, and from his introductions to his publications it is clear that he had a flair for playing up his familiarity with both Ashkenaz and Sefarad in order to make his books more enticing. He professes an interest in cross-pollination between Jewish cultures and works to bring it about.

It also seems that he did not travel for the job, but that he picked the job for the travel. He seems to have had a good deal of wanderlust. In addition to the places already mentioned, he also writes of visits to Morocco and Gibraltar, thus completing his circuit of the Western Mediterranean. It is hard to know the effects of his attempts to serve as a cultural bridge and a courier of knowledge and enlightenment, but he considered the endeavor worthwhile, and we tend to agree with him.

On a personal note (and a natural affinity for Ashkenazim named Eliezer), one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 era has been the inability to travel. I have found myself feeding my wanderlust vicariously, through the travels of people like Eliezer Ashkenazi, until things open back up and we can hit the road again.

Reception of the Vilna Gaon in Central Europe

When and how did the Vilna Gaon’s reputation spread beyond Lithuania to other parts of the Jewish world? Subscriber lists can offer some intriguing clues.

One of the most interest aspects of studying Prenumeranten is how it can shed light on so many other areas of Jewish and general history, sometimes in unforeseen ways. For example, it can take us deep into the process of how books and their authors were received.

One of the most influential figures in modern Jewish history is undoubtedly R. Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797), better known as the Gr”a or the Vilna Gaon. Monograph after monograph details the uniqueness of this once-in-a-millennium mind who left no area of Torah on which he did not comment.

He was also somewhat reclusive; he was cloistered in a kloyz (I’m aware of the redundancy), interacted with a small group of elite students, and published very little in his lifetime. It was his disciples who published his work in the decades after his death.

One of the questions that has engaged scholars recently is the reception of the Gr”a outside of Lithuania. Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Brodt is working on a project tracing the Vilna Gaon’s reception in Galicia. He has also studied the role of the popular halakhic code Hayei Adam in the diffusion of the Gr”a’s teachings, of other works on the Gr”a’s reputation as a saint and genius, and on the publication of the Gr”a’s works between his death and the year 1820.

It is this last topic that overlaps with our studies. A key figure in the spread of the Vilna Gaon’s work is undoubtedly Rabbi Shimon Oppenheim (also known as R. Shimon [of] Kremnau or R. Shimon Klein). He authored several of his own halakhic works and served as a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Pest, Hungary, for over 50 years until his death in 1851 at the age of 98.

In the early 1810s, R. Oppenheim published six of the Vilna Gaon’s books within five years: The commentary on the Book of Yonah and on the aggadic tales of Rabbah bar bar Hanah (1810); a commentary on Shir HaShirim and Habakkuk (1811); a commentary on Mishnah Taharot (1812); novellae on the halakhot of niddah (1812); a commentary on the Hagaddah (1813), and a commentary on Mishlei (1814). All of these books were printed in Prague and approved by the famed censor, Karl Fischer.

Four of the books have subscriber lists, and they are of the type that traces the movements of the author or agent. For the most part, he visited the same places all four times, though there are some interesting differences. I have not yet started to dig into those differences or systematically look for the recurrence of names in the different lists, though many names repeat.

It is interesting to me that R. Oppenheim selected a broad range of the Vilna Gaon’s works for publication: Commentaries on halakhah and aggadah, on Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, on familiar texts like the Haggadah and Yonah as well as more esoteric topics like the halakhot of niddah, Taharot, and cryptic aggadot. None of the works it particularly long. The sense is that R. Oppenheim wanted to blitz the market with a variety of works by the Gaon and give readers the sense that he was indeed a sui generis figure.

The maps, presented below, are color-coded by region: Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary. This division is made by the author himself. Non-numbered places are “indirect”, that is, they are listed with another town, not among the places that the author visited. (For example, “R. Ephraim of Town X” is listed with the subscribers of Town Y). I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. David Kraus of Prague for his assistance in identifying some of these places.

For the sake of comparison, here are a couple of other books with subscriber lists published around the same time and place. The first is R. Yonah Landsofer’s Kanfei Yonah, published in Prague in 1812:

Next is R. David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel (Vienna, 1820), a Hebrew translation of key works of astronomy and geometry:

Finally, here’s R. Hirsch Brode of Kittsee’s collection of sermons, Shnei Ofarim:

This is all very preliminary, but interesting enough, I think, to bring to public attention at this stage already. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a whole bunch of prenumeranten maps that I’ve made over the past few months.

A Latter-Day Book of Ruth, in Marmaros

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion – an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Of all the books in the Hebrew Scripture, none is more infused with kindness and compassion than the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot. The entire redemptive story turns on acts of compassion: Of youth caring for old age, the wealthy for the impoverished, and the enfranchised for the disenfranchised. It is also the “backstory” of the Davidic dynasty, suggesting that it is such acts that form the bedrock of society upon which David’s kingdom could be built.

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion, an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of Lekhah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the Book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. R. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later, after R. Alkabetz had died.

In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (today’s Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book. As he wrote on the title page [apparently unaware of the Lublin edition]:

It has been many years since this book was printed in Constantinople, in [5]321, and only very few – some here, some there – reached our country. So now, my spirit has moved me to bring it to print a second time, so that the public may benefit from it.

Title page of Shoresh Yishai, Sighet, 1891

This is the first act of kindness we will encounter. A young man who undertakes to reissue a book for public benefit.

A truly astounding feature of this book is that is contains 30 pages of Prenumeranten (you can see them in Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the book, but not the Hebrewbooks upload), the most extensive list that we have encountered. Moreover, like Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, the places are not listed alphabetically – and there are about 450 different stops on this journey. Sure enough, the order of places is chronological, allowing us to retrace the routes of the bookseller. On the way, we were able to identify hundreds of places that do not appear in Kagan’s work or that he was unable to identify. In all, we traced out eight different trips, covering over 400 places. (Some places appear twice because the seller’s routes crossed one another. We can imagine that on his return trip to Dej, he experienced [bad rabbi joke redacted].) These places are all concentrated in the “four corners” area where Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Prior to World War I, this was all Hungary (specifically, “Unterland”). Not even one of these 400+ places is outside of those four contemporary nations. More than that – he came within a kilometer of Galicia, but never crossed the border, nor any international border. (Popout link to the map)

The first stop is the author’s hometown of Novoselytsya, and all of the journeys either start or end in that vicinity. The density here is phenomenal. There were times that we could guess what the next stop would be by simply looking at the map, as our traveler visited nearly every town along the way. The map does not even include “secondary” places. For example, when the traveler visited Khust, he pre-sold copies of the book to eleven students in the yeshiva there, from nine different places. There are hundreds of such “off-route” places mentioned in this list.

This list was a great boon to our project, but we were puzzled. A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz is certainly an interesting book, but the massive publicity campaign and the incredible reception of it seem unwarranted nevertheless. The book was selling like hotcakes. Yeshiva students were buying it. Women – who rarely appear as buyers on Prenumeranten lists from this part of the world – were buying it. It made no sense to us.

Then we reached the end of the list and learned the rest of the story. The typesetter – one Yosef Chajales of Buchach – writes in a colophon how David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children – orphans. He explains how they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book: “Certainly the merits of the author of the sacred book will protect you.”

Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.

After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel from town to town, pre-selling the book. She asks that buyers pay full price – not the discounted pre-publication price – so that she can provide for herself and her orphaned children.

Finally, the brother, Tzvi Elimelekh (the name seems to indicate affiliation with the Hasidic court of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow, author of Bnei Yisaskhar and numerous other works) reports that he completed the publication thanks to the support of the presubscribers. He then blesses them with all kinds of good wishes.

These letters, however, do not capture the lengths to which the brother went, traveling to every one-horse town in the countryside of Northeast Hungary to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. Nor do they capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.

Finally, perhaps this story tells us something about the intersection between book culture and the culture of tzedaka. Had the brother gone from town to town collecting on behalf of his sister and her children, would he have met with as much success? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Had the publisher or an agent gone from town to town selling only the book, would he have met with as much success? Almost certainly not. A book like this is simply not best-seller material.

But together – the book plus the story of the publisher’s premature death and his needy family – they produced a remarkable wave of compassion. Perhaps it was because their generosity would be recorded for posterity in the list of Prenumeranten. Perhaps they thought that the book would serve as a talisman. Perhaps it was simply the cumulative effect of the two factors – the desire to own the book and the desire to help the needy – that produced this remarkable result. The people listed in this book are indeed worthy heirs of Ruth the Moabitess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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