One of the things we noticed when mapping Noda Bi-Yehuda is that the map for Vol. I looks different from the map of Vol. II, and that his sphere of correspondence seems to shrink over time. Take a look at what I wrote in the post about this.
We now have another way to visualize this: distinct heatmaps for the two volumes. You really see how Vol II covers a far more compact area, especially relative to the overall number of responsa. Take a look:
We’ve got a new map of Rav Yosef Shaul Nathansohn’s Sho’el U-Meshiv. He wrote more responsa than there are pages of Talmud. If one learned Sho’el U-Meshiv Yomi it would take longer than Daf Yomi. That’s really something.
Anyhow, we mapped it. You can toggle both city maps and heat maps for Sho’el U-Meshiv and Maharsham. They were both Galician, one generation apart, so it really offers an interesting basis for comparison. I haven’t even started digging in.
The following question was recently posted to a forum in which I participate. I’ve removed identifying information connected to the scholar who posted the question, his work, and the forum in question. I’m posting the question (the she’elah) so that I can get to my ‘teshuvah’:
We know that…Rabbi…invented a method of teaching young talmidei hakhamim how to compose a teshuva, and that this method was brought to Israel and is taught in Yeshivat…. But writing of responsa has been going on for over a millennium. Obviously, hundreds of scholars throughout the diaspora over the generations somehow acquired the skill of composing teshuvot. How did they acquire it? Mainly by trial-and-error? Or was this skill taught – and if so, how was this done, in various places and times over the centuries?
And here’s my answer:
Interesting question that gets to the heart of responsa as a literary genre. Responsa are generally written from one rabbi to another, or at least among people who were learned enough to assess the persuasiveness of the responsum and who already had a sense of the stature of the rabbi to whom they sent their query. Thus, a central feature of the genre, at least in its modern iterations, is that its goals are to persuade through argumentation and to convey or reinforce the expertise and thus the authority of the writer. If the skill of responsa-writing could be duplicated so that it would be impossible, from the product itself, to tell the experts from sub-experts, it would only be a matter of time before the true virtuosos find a new way to express their expertise. This would mitigate against the success of any attempt to standardize the training of responsa-writers, though there are certainly salient features of the genre (e.g., the deployment of honorifics to the respondent, self-deprecation, complaint of preoccupation with other matters, etc.) that can perhaps be taught.
A related question concerns the reception of responsa. Does the skill acquired in a program such as the one described translate into trust on the part of the audience? Of what value (other than forgery and parody) is the skill of responsa-writing when no one is asking?
Ultimately, I believe that the skill was developed through “shimush” – the apprenticing of young scholars under elder scholars. We know that the Geonim had others draft their responsa. Mordechai Akiva Friedman has shown from Genizah documents that secretaries often developed the shorthand of scholars and judges into full responsa, and Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg has written on how responsa and responsa-writing were used within circles of students in early modern Poland.
I would add an important exception to the above: the women who respond to questions for the Nishmat website. They are indeed trained not only in the relevant material, but are taught how to formulate answers with a specific manner and tone. It is worthwhile to look at their site (or at the collection of their responsa that have been published in Hebrew and English).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several Spanish Rishonim mention a place called “Alcolea”. We misidentified it, but we think we got the right one now.
We recently got an email from reader JR Ayaso regarding our identification of the town אלקוליעא, which appears several times in Responsa Rivash, with Alcolea in Almeira Province, in Andalusia. He points out that there are several localities in Spain called “Alcolea” (prompting me to consider writing a song about all these Alcoleas, to the tune of Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh”, but I digress), and suggests that Rivash is referring to Alcolea Del Rio, on the Guadalquivir River, in Seville Province. This prompted me to take a closer look.
Looking at our map of Responsa Rivash shows that Alcolea does, indeed, seem to be a geographical outlier. Since that map will be updated, here’s a screenshot of what it looks like now:
Alcolea is the relatively large green dot southeast of Granada. Almost all of the Rivash’s early responsa were written to Aragon and Navarre. In fact, the only major outliers, we thought, were Alcolea and the dot to the northwest of it, Pinar. It turned out that Pinar was a misidentification of פינה, which is actually Pina De Ebro, in Zaragoza Province, smack dab in the middle of Aragon. So it seems that Mr. Ayaso is correct; we got the wrong Alcolea.
What about Mr. Ayaso’s suggestion that it refers to Alcolea Del Rio? Well, it’s problematic for similar reasons; Seville is even further away from Rivash’s base in Aragon. But that is only two of the 13 Alcoleas on the Spanish Wikipedia disambiguation page. [Protip: When studying such things, look at the Wikipedia page of the local language. The English disambiguation page has only 9 Alcoleas.]
Meyer Kayserling, in his Jewish Encyclopedia entry for “Alcolea”, lists Responsa Rivash as a source on the community and writes that it is in Jaen Province. Jaen is also in Andalusia, and moreover, we found no Alcolea in that province. Perhaps he is referring to one of the other Alcoleas in Andalusia, but it would remain an outlier – possible, but only after discounting other possibilities.
The Jewish Virtual Library has an entry on Alcolea, which they identify, based on Encyclopedia Judaica, with Alcolea De Cinca – in Huesca Province, right in Rivash’s home territory. Furthermore, a while ago Prof. Simcha Emanuel shared with me a monograph by Dr. Zunz, titled “Uber die in den hebräisch-jüdischen Schriften vorkommenden hispanischen Ortnamen.” It is essentially a gazetteer of Iberian place names that appear in Hebrew works. Here’s Zunz’s entry for אלקוליעא:
Zunz points out that it is mentioned in Responsa Rivash and that it has the suffix דסינקה (De Cinca!) in a responsum of Rabbenu Nissim (Ran). Page 63 in the Rome Edition of Responsa Ran corresponds to responsum #30, written in 1349-50. Two other places are mentioned in this responsum about the acceptability of testimony to the betrothal of a woman named Bella. One, as Zunz notes, is אלבליט (or אלבליט דסינקאה), and the other, noted by Leon Feldman, is Lerida (לרידה; Lleida). We have identified אלבליט דסינקאה as Albalete De Cinca, a town that is literally across the River Cinca from Alcolea De Cinca. Lleida, the largest town in the region, is about 30 miles away. Ran’s responsum is thus addressed to the rabbinic leaders of the two small towns involved in the dispute and of the larger town nearby. You can see the dispute moving up the food chain from the village to the larger town to the acknowledged posek of the country.
Rivash was a primary disciple of Ran and, upon the latter’s death, became the leading halakhist of Aragon. It stands to reason that the responsa he wrote to Alcolea were indeed to Alcolea De Cinca, which was firmly in “his” territory, had a documented Jewish community, and had consulted with Rivash’s master when a dispute arose. This is not ironclad proof, but the evidence makes this conclusion the most likely by far.
Thank you, Mr. Ayaso, for asking this question and leading us down this fun little “rabbi hole”.
R. Mordechai Leib Winkler was a major halakhist and an uncompromising separatist from all but the most strictly Orthodox movements. What happened when a colorful individual from Yonkers, NY, invited R. Winkler to weigh in on a local issue?
The Forward recently published (in English and Yiddish) an article I wrote about the ouster of a Hungarian-born rabbi from a Yonkers synagogue almost a century a go. This particular rabbi hole opened when I noticed that R. Mordechai Leib Winkler wrote a responsum to Yonkers. The story seemed interesting, and so I reached out to an old friend, Rabbi Shmuel Hain, rabbi of YIOZ, the present incarnation of the synagogue where the events took place (and where I was scheduled to be a scholar-in-residence soon after). He put me in touch with Nancy Klein, who knew the other side of the story: that the shul’s rabbi was mysteriously deposed, and he cursed his congregants on his way out the door.
A lot of the details were left on the cutting-room floor: the type of details that HaMapah lives for. This is the expanded version of the article. For those who read the Forward article, I apologize that the new wrinkles are mixed together with some repetition.
The responsum sent by R. Winkler (1845-1932) from Mád, Hungary to Shmuel Miller in Yonkers, in January 1923, appears in the second volume of She’elot U-Teshuvot Levushei Mordekhai, R. Winkler’s monumental collection of over 1,500 responsa. It is one of four responsa that he sent to the US; the overwhelming majority of his responsa were sent within Hungary, as can be seen in our map (separate tab).
The responsum in question addresses two questions: “[A] The appointment of a rabbi who served in the rabbinate of a Status Quo community; [B] concerning a ban that this rabbi placed on a ritual slaughterer.” R. Winkler wastes no time in answering the first question: “I cannot hold back my great astonishment. What was this congregation thinking when it gave him the rabbinic position, once this rabbi served for eleven years as the rabbi of a Status Quo community!?” As for the second question, he instructs Miller to take the matter up before a rabbinical court, “and without a doubt there are great and righteous rabbis in New York City who can judge this case.”
What exactly is a “Status Quo” community, and why was Rabbi Winkler so opposed to them? The answer to this requires a deep dive into the history of Hungarian religious/communal politics during the latter half of the 19th and early-20th centuries. In brief, a failed attempt in 1869-1870 to create a single, government-recognized representative body for Hungarian Jewry led to a formal schism between the traditionalist “Orthodox” communities and the modernizing “Neolog” or “Congressional” communities, each with its own supracommunal organization. The Hungarian Parliament accepted the petition of the Orthodox communities to remain separate on March 18, 1870 – Shushan Purim – exactly 150 years ago.
At that point, communities had to choose which national organization to join. In some of the larger cities, the Jewish population split into two or more communities, while smaller cities and towns tended to affiliate with one national organization or the other. In general, southern and central Hungary gravitated toward the Neolog movement, while the older and more densely Jewish northwest (“Oberland”) and northeast (“Unterland”) inclined toward (Ultra-)Orthodoxy.
There was, however, a third option. Communities could choose to join neither of the central organization and thus maintain its autonomy. These latter communities, constituting about 5% of Jewry within the old borders of Hungary (before the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of World War I, sliced up the cadaver of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), were known as “Status Quo”. In contrast to the two larger movements, there was no central association of Status Quo communities (at least not until the late 1920s), and communities declined to join one of the two national organizations for a variety of reasons. In some cases, a small Hasidic congregation within a larger non-Hasidic community would secede and gain official recognition as a Status Quo community. In other cases, a community might have preferred German-style “Neo-Orthodoxy” and therefore wished to remain separate from the relatively hardline mainstream of Hungarian Orthodoxy. In general, though, Status Quo communities were generally quite traditional. Transplanted onto American soil, they would almost certainly be considered “Orthodox”.
This did not stop Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis from firmly rejecting identification, affiliation, and cooperation not only with Neolog communities, but ultimately with Status Quo communities as well. Among the sanctions was that meat from animals slaughtered by shokhtim employed by Neolog or Status Quo communities was regarded as non-kosher, even if the laws of kosher slaughter were meticulously observed. Regardless of personal observance or ideology, one who did not identify as Orthodox was deemed beyond the pale, unfit for inclusion in an Orthodox community.
However, the tripartite division of Hungarian Judaism does not map onto the tripartite division of American Judaism (which was just emerging in the 1920s). It’s not just that the boundaries are drawn differently; religious communities, and how they interface with government, are structured very differently. The fact – and there is no sense denying the fact – that R. Rosenberg was rabbi of a Status Quo – that is, non-Orthodox – community in Hungary would not preclude him from being a bona fide Orthodox rabbi in America, which indeed he was.
Among the leading, non-Hasidic Hungarian rabbis of his day, R. Winkler was perhaps the most uncompromising when it came to drawing bright lines between Orthodox and other groupings. Moreover, places that usually turned to other halakhic authorities were more likely to turn to R. Winkler for questions like this, as I have shown elsewhere. Of all the poskim of the day, R. Winkler was probably the most likely to impose those boundaries on religious communities outside of Hungary – in North America, for instance.
The responsum in question does not name the Yonkers rabbi alleged to have served in a Status Quo community, but we can be certain that it was indeed Rabbi Philip (Shraga) Rosenberg. R. Winkler provides the crucial evidence when he writes, in that same responsum: “I am astounded! What were you thinking when you accepted this rabbi, who was the rabbi in Neustadtel Novemesto, which is Status Quo….” In fact, before immigrating to the United States, Rabbi Philip Rosenberg was the rabbi of that town – today Nové Mesto nad Váhom, Slovakia – which was indeed a “Status Quo” community. On the title page of his first book, Bigdei Serad,a collection of Shabbat and holiday sermons, he lists “Ir Hadash (Novemesto)” as one of the places where he served as rabbi. In the introduction, he thanks the people of “Nove Mesto (Ir Hadash)”, among whom he dwelled for seventeen years. (“Nove Mesto” means “New City” in Czech and Slovak.)
Having established R. Winkler’s hard line against communities that did not affiliate with Orthodoxy – and their functionaries – and having established that R. Rosenberg served as the rabbi of just such a community, we can see how R. Winkler’s responsum provided a basis for terminating R. Rosenberg’s employment, and we can understand why he would feel victimized by such inquisitorial heresy-hunting and lash out accordingly.
This, however, does not tell the whole story. Although Rabbi Winkler was firmly established as a leading Hungarian rabbi, our findings at HaMapah have consistently shown that halakhic authority, until after World War II, was a regional phenomenon. In this case, Rabbi Winkler’s authority crossed the Atlantic because his opinion was solicited by a crucial figure in this story: Shmuel Miller.
At first glance, it would seem that Miller’s involvement revolved around Rabbi Rosenberg’s disqualification of a local ritual slaughterer. This, after all, was the subject of his query to Rabbi Winkler, and vendettas are born of much lighter offenses. However, a closer look at the fascinating and colorful Shmuel Miller – his New York Times obituary barely scratches the surface – reveals that his problems with Rabbi Rosenberg ran deeper.
Shmuel Miller is Dr. Simon Miller (1887-1971), a Yonkers dentist who served as a lay leader of Ohab Zedek and local chapters of Zionist organizations. He was born in Hungary but immigrated to the United States as a child, along with other members of his family. His grandfather, Rabbi Nathaniel Miller was the rabbi of a Yonkers congregation according to an 1897 responsum of Rabbi Eliezer Deutsch (Responsa Peri Ha-Sadeh #8) – perhaps the first responsum addressed to Yonkers. Simon Miller was also the founder, editor, and frequent contributor (under his own name and various pseudonyms) of a journal called Apiryon, a short-lived Hebrew-language monthly that included rabbinic sermons and homilies, news from the Jewish world (especially the US, Pre-Trianon Hungary, and Mandatory Palestine), book reviews, eulogies, and a great deal of commentary and editorializing. Although its editorial office was in the Flagg Building in Yonkers, it was printed at the Katzburg Brothers printing house.
The choice of the Katzburg printing house was no accident, as Miller’s sister was married to David Tzvi Katzburg, the editor of the noted Hungarian Orthodox rabbinic journal, Tel Talpiyot. (Their son, Nathaniel Katzburg, the noted historian of Hungarian Jewry, was thus a nephew of Simon Miller and a great-grandson and namesake of Nathaniel Miller.) In addition to Apiryon and Tel Talpiyot, the Katzburgs published the works of some of Hungary’s leading rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler.
The Katzburg family – and Simon Miller by extension – developed a complex relationship with Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis. Miller and the Katzburgs were Zionists, while most leading Hungarian rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler and his renowned son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky – opposed Zionism, even while favoring Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine. Yet they remained on excellent terms with the rabbis and had deep respect and allegiance to them. David Tzvi Katzburg is the addressee in eight of Rabbi Winkler’s responsa, several of which tackle some of the day’s most pressing issues.
There were also issues about which Zionists and the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinate agreed: opposition to the Orthodox, anti-Zionist Agudath Israel movement. It may seem counterintuitive, but the Hungarian rabbis opposed the Agudah more vehemently than they opposed Zionism. Their opposition to Zionism was tactical; they did not want to seem like anything less than patriotic Hungarian citizens. Within communities, especially on the periphery, Zionism and Orthodoxy coexisted, in some places more comfortably than others. The Agudah, on the other hand, which deigned to represent a global Orthodoxy, was seen as a direct threat to the autonomy of the Hungarian rabbinate, so their opposition to it was total.
We thus find that Simon Miller had similar attitudes: He was a Zionist, yet he conveyed respect for leading Hungarian Orthodox rabbis. In the second volume of Apiryon, Miller, writing under the pseudonym “the Young Doctor”, describes the founding of the first Zionist society in Yonkers in the study hall of Ohab Zedek, and in the very next article, eulogizes two renowned Hungarian Orthodox rabbis and also gives high honor to Rabbi Winkler.
Miller was also a strong opponent of Agudah, attacking it from both the Zionist angle and the Hungarian Orthodox angle in the pages of Apiryon as he chronicles the 1926 visit of several leading Agudists to the United States. He writes triumphantly of the Agudah’s failure to gain a foothold on American soil. His sharpest barbs are reserved for Rabbi Leo Jung of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, though he also lists “minor rabbis” who allied themselves with Agudath Israel, one of whom is named Rosenberg. A JTA report of that same 1926 visit confirms that the rabbi in question is “Rabbi Dr. Phillip [sic] Rosenberg, of Cleveland, Ohio.” Other than one other instance where he is named as a sympathizer with the anti-Zionist Agudists, Rabbi Rosenberg is not mentioned in the pages of Apiryon, even as he was the rabbi of the synagogue where the journal’s editor served as an officer.
Prof. Adam Ferziger, in an article about a debate that raged in the pages of Apiryon, notes that Miller, despite his clear, lifelong affiliation with Orthodoxy, was critical of the stark separation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox groupings in Hungary and Germany (a separatism that Agudath Israel promoted). His critique, wrapped in a thick layer of cynicism, is apparent already in the first volume of Apiryon.
Miller was thus acutely aware of the various configurations of “Orthodoxy” that obtained in different countries around the world, and he was critical of the Hungarian model even as he served as the president of an Orthodox synagogue in America. He also knew full well that Rabbi Rosenberg, a supporter of Agudath Israel, was as “Orthodox” as any rabbi in America. And yet, in order to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster, Miller was willing to marshal the support of the most uncompromising of Hungary’s separatist rabbis. It is unlikely that Miller genuinely believed that a rabbi who had served in a Hungarian Status Quo community could not then serve an American Orthodox one. After all, in Apiryon, Miller refers to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan – the founder of Reconstructionism, who by the early 1920s was well-known for holding heterodox views – as “Haredi” (which, at the time, was considered the Hebrew equivalent of “Orthodox”)! It seems clear, then, that his question to Rabbi Winkler was a cynical ploy to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster.
There are several final plot twists and ironies in this tale. As Mrs. Klein wrote, Rabbi Rosenberg managed to convince the congregation to accept his son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, as their rabbi, while he took over his son’s pulpit in Cleveland. Amazingly, this was not the first time that Rabbi Rosenberg worked out such a compromise. Rabbi Philip Rosenberg’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg, was rabbi of the town of Tasnad, Romania (then Hungary). As reported in the Tasnad Yizkor Book (pp. 38-39), when the father passed away in 1898, the son immediately became a candidate to succeed him. However, some members of the community opposed his appointment, spreading the rumor that he had studied for several years at the (more Western-facing) Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. After several rounds of fighting, the young Rabbi Philip Rosenberg worked out a compromise: He would withdraw his candidacy in favor of his sister’s husband. The community agreed, and so Rabbi Rosenberg moved away, first to Pezinok and then to Nove Mesto.
A second plot twist appears in another responsum from Rabbi Winkler, dated February, 1929. The question is whether one is permitted to officiate at the wedding of someone who converted to Judaism in the presence of “the cult of Reformers” – that is, whether such a conversion is valid. Predictably, Rabbi Winkler rules stringently and requires them to convert again. The only surprise is the identity of the questioner: Rabbi Shraga Rosenberg of Cleveland! The victim of Rabbi Winkler’s boundary-drawing was consulting with him on questions of drawing boundaries! Did Rabbi Winkler forget that Rabbi Rosenberg had served a Status Quo community? Did he never learn his name? Was Rabbi Rosenberg unaware of the role Rabbi Winkler played in his ouster from Yonkers? Or had time healed that wound? It is worth noting that in his introduction to Bigdei Serad, R. Rosenberg mentions his Yonkers years without a hint of bitterness, even thanking Ohab Zedek for replacing him with his son.
R. Rosenberg’s son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, remained at Ohab Zedek for close to half a century, though he is better known for serving as the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Unions kashrut division from 1950 until his death in 1972, and for transforming kosher-certification in America. His disciple and successor, Rabbi Berel Wein, recounts that his integrity was reflected in a phrase that he would use when presented with plans that included shortcuts and workarounds: “Vos zogt Got?” (“What does God say?”). It is tempting to think that he internalized the need for integrity and principle in the field of kashrut after witnessing how his father, after trying to remove a ritual slaughterer, was accused of eating the “non-kosher” meat slaughtered by a Status Quo slaughterer.
Finally, several months ago, the Orthodox Union appointed Rabbi Moshe Hauer as its new executive director. Rabbi Hauer’s wife, Mindy, is a granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg and a great-granddaughter of R. Shraga Rosenberg. Despite the attempt to undermine his Orthodox credentials, two of his descendants have risen to the top of the American Orthodox establishment. It seems that Rabbi Rosenberg got the last laugh.
Many of our readers are probably familiar with JewishGen, the premier resource for Jewish genealogical research. For quite some time, we’ve had our eye on their Communities Database, which contains information on the history, names, coordinates, environs, and population for Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We have often used it to help us identify places, which involves a lot of guesswork since their search engine only allows Latin characters without diacritics.
You may have noticed the JewishGen logo to the right. We put that there because we recently met with the good folks at JG, and we agreed to all help each other out by sharing data and resources with each other and with the public.1Be advised: Moshe will happily go the full NASCAR for datasets.
What does this mean? It means new and better toys. For instance, that thing about not being able to search for places by Hebrew characters? Well check out our searchable map of Hebrew place names:
As of now, this table has a bit under 4000 place name variants in Hebrew characters. Once we complete the merge of our list with JG’s list, that number will more than double. And we have also started merging these lists with Berl Kagan’s Sefer Prenumeranten. Play around with it. There’s nothing like it, and this is just an “alpha” version.
It also means that Moshe got to play around with the population data in the Communities Database. We have wondered for some time whether there is any relationship between the population of a community and the number of responsa sent there.
So is there a relationship? The short answer: It’s complicated.
Let’s compare some of our favorites (a note: we used 1900 for availability reasons, surprisingly, there’s not a strong penalty for correlation when using earlier poskim). We’ve dropped communities with over 20,000 Jews from the graph, and also because there might be other effects going on over there.2I have a very strong suspicion that this is subject to a major prewar / postwar gap.
If this reads as a horrible mess to you, then you’ve read it correctly. This is the picture of statistical noise.
[We’re going to use a lot of numbers here, so for those who aren’t into mathy stuff, here’s the baalebatish version: A perfect positive correlation between number of responsa and population would mean that the bigger the city, the more responsa, no exceptions. It would have a score of 1. If it had a perfect relationship but it wasn’t a straight line, its Pearson correlation coefficient would be a bit lower while Spearman would remain at 1. A perfect negative correlation would mean that the bigger the city, the fewer responsa (or the more responsa, the smaller the city), no exceptions. It would have a score of -1 (again, with Pearson being lower if it isn’t linear). A score of zero means that there’s no correlation at all. With this, the numbers that express the correlation should be basically intelligible and always between -1 and 1.]
The strongest individual correlation here is Mahari Aszod at a whopping R=0.175, and he’s not even near contemporaneous. Among the poskim who were active around then, we have Avnei Nezer at R=0.04, Beit Yitzchak at R=0.11, Divrei Malkiel at R=-0.04(!), and leading the pack, Levushei Mordechai at R=0.14 (Pearson). Using Spearman it teases out a little higher, but still nothing awe-inspiring.
Let’s keep going: what happens when we sum the place counts together?
As evidenced by the trendline (or the eye test), it’s pretty grim.
Even just looking at the count of books we have, it doesn’t really get better. Regardless of whether you use Pearson, Kendall3For the not mathematically inclined: yeah, you can forget about Kendall, don’t bother., or Spearman, R<0.1.4I thought of using more, but I’m scared of P-hacking it by throwing more metrics at it.
I don’t really know quite what to make of it. The main thing I suspect: as a place becomes bigger and more independent, it needs to ask fewer questions (i.e., larger towns “clear the neighborhood”), offsetting the increase in populations (or at least roughly). In that case, there would be a population “sweet spot” in which a town is big enough that it generates lots of questions but not so big that local talent can handle them adequately. And then we might see something like the curve we get if we wildly overfit a trendline:
This remains an open question for me, but I still wanted to publish this. Let me explain myself. Firstly, given the amount of noise here, it’ll take a long time for us to fully clarify the issue.
Elli asked me the following questions when I showed him the draft, and I think they’re interesting:
Maybe we should simply disregard towns that were known to have rabbis who wrote responsa, and then look at the rest?
There’s a “nudnik effect”: Like Levushei Mordechai to his son-in-law in Galante.
Or maybe it’s not about cities at all, but about people. The carryover we saw in Hungary – maybe it was really carryover of individuals, not cities.
With regards to (1), well, it wouldn’t bump off enough places to make a dent, and you’d probably just drop it even further. As for (2-3), well, it’s actually all the more striking. These are both very real effects (look for Yaavetz’s over the top disses of some of his questioners(!) in She’elat Yaavetz), but strangely, even this doesn’t bear some obvious statistical linkage to population. These are all real questions, and it’s really very possible the answer could change with more data, but given the data we have at the moment, it’s clear we’d need a lot more data to truly get clarity on this issue.
So why discuss this at all? Well, one of the scourges of modern science is ‘P-Hacking’. To quote Wikipedia: “[P-hacking] is the misuse of data analysis to find patterns in data that can be presented as statistically significant, thus dramatically increasing and understating the risk of false positives. This is done by performing many statistical tests on the data and only reporting those that come back with significant results.”
For a simple example, if we look at statistically significant as being P < 0.05 (less than a 5% probability of occurring by random chance), well, if we look at 50 different foods in a diet study, we’ve now got over a 90% chance of finding something ‘statistically significant’ by random chance alone.5This is not a random example, those articles about diet studies showing ‘kale causes cancer’ or whatever are almost always p-hacking.
We’ve published stuff with attempts at very concrete findings — take our post on the handover of rabbinic leadership in Hungary, for example. Honesty dictates that we also on occasion say: ‘it’s hard to see a signal in the noise here’, even if you can’t get a journal to publish ‘nothing much to see here, folks’.
I wanted to title this post “Baby Keep It Real With His People”, referencing the hit song ‘Baby‘ by Lil’ Baby (feat. DaBaby). Sadly, despite my best efforts, the number of fans of both responsa and Atlanta hip-hop remains small, so it went. Suffice it to say, in both data and rap, HaMapah supports Quality Control.