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.