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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

plot from API (1)

 

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

BZ - by year

 

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

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

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

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.

All the Bychkivs

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

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

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

Why so many different spellings? There are different reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rabbinics, meet Analytics

A true responsum, the answer that a rabbi writes to a query posed by another rabbi, is the basic unit of rabbinic authority. It orders the two correspondents hierarchically; the one asking acknowledges the greater expertise of the one answering, thereby expanding the latter’s influence. Moreover, because the hierarchy is, as Jacob Katz wrote, “unofficial” and “spontaneous,” emerging implicitly from the deference of the secondary and tertiary elite, it can tell us more about the dynamics of influence, reputation, and expertise than many other forms of legal authority.

Words like “authority” and “influence” are used, in this context, in contradistinction to “power.” If a rabbi was heeded, certainly by a distant correspondent, it was because the interlocutor voluntarily submitted to the rabbi’s decision. Aside from certain limited local powers, largely dependent on the approval of the lay leadership, there was no mechanism by which a rabbi could enforce his decisions. As Salo Baron wrote, this places rabbis in the “awkward position of theoretical supremacy and actual inferiority.”

On the other hand, since rabbinic authority is not dependent on enforcement, it can cross borders without encroaching on the sovereignty of any state. This does not mean that there are no borders or boundaries; there often are. However, the boundaries of cultural territories are sometimes more pronounced and significant than political borders. For instance, the old frontier between the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania was still significant in the early 20th century – more significant, perhaps, than the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia or Romania.

These insights lie at the heart of HaMapah and its objectives. The “metadata” of responsa – When they were written, to whom, by whom, to where, etc. – can be quantified, plotted on a map, and visualized in different ways – akin to the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project at Stanford. Given enough data, we can examine the effects of national and cultural borders on the spread of rabbinic authority; the effects of transportation and communication systems and technologies; we could compare the “reach” of halakhists who lived near one another, either at the same time or in succession; we could look at the dynamics of succession, when one authority passed away and another took his place; we could precisely plot out the growth of rabbi’s authority – whether it spreads gradually or abruptly, in all directions or in particular directions. There are new questions that did not even dawn on us until we started looking at the graphic representations, the maps and charts.

Eventually we want to get into some even deeper stuff, like the sources quoted by responsa in different ways (as support, to disagree; by name and anonymously; rabbinic sources and non-rabbinic, halakhic and non-halakhic, and so forth). We’d also like to map other corpora, like approbations and subscriber lists (“prenumeranten”). We’re on the cusp of something new, big, and exciting.

Initially, we are going to focus on the “long” 19th century – roughly from the First Partition of Poland in 1772 through the First World War. The first responsa we analyzed and mapped are those of Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Schwadron of Berezhany (Maharsham, 1835-1911), a leading Galician halakhist in the generation prior to World War I – that is, when Galicia was still part of the Habsburg Empire, before it was integrated into the reconstituted Poland after the war.

So without further ado, here is a heat map of “Maharsham Land”.

Each shaded region is a province that existed in 1900. The thick black lines are international boundaries. The darkest region is Galicia itself.

Here’s another visualization of the data.

Each dot is a community to which Maharsham addressed a responsum; the larger the dot, the more responsa he addressed to the community (you can open the map separately too).

These maps tell us a great deal, but before we get to that, we’d love to hear from readers about what leaps out at them, what grabs their attention. We will share some of our own insights in the next post. We hope to post fairly regularly, so follow us here and on Facebook.