Two New Articles

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

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

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

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

Reception of the Vilna Gaon in Central Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wrote the Late Volumes of Igrot Moshe?

Moshe makes his debut at The Seforim Blog with a post about applying authorship analysis to the late volumes of Igrot Moshe in order to answer some questions that have long been lingering. You don’t want to miss this!

The Hungarian Succession

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

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

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

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

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

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

The portrait in question

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

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

The Hatam Sofer’s Umbrella (Signal and Noise: Part II)

One of the Hatam Sofer’s best known responsa is Orah Hayim 72 (with my [Elli’s] translation for Sefaria), where he discusses opening and carrying an umbrella (more specifically, a parasol) on Shabbat. Its fame is due largely to its relatively lenient ruling, which flies in the face of the commonly-accepted stringent ruling (in my young adulthood, black hats in blue plastic “Seven Mile Market” bags were de rigueur on rainy Friday nights in Baltimore).

This responsum can be situated more precisely: It was written in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia) on Monday, Ta’anit Esther, 5573, or the Ides of March, 1813. There is no questioner listed; Hatam Sofer is responding directly to the stringent ruling of Noda BiYehuda (2:30). It is apparent that carrying parasols on Shabbat in Pressburg was somewhat common (it was all the rage in Europe); Hatam Sofer concludes by saying that even if it is better to be stringent, there is no reason to make a big fuss over the issue.

Adding a few data points sharpens the picture:

  1. Hatam Sofer became the rabbi of Pressburg in 1806.
  2. Even though R. Yehezkel Landau, the author of Noda BiYehudah and the greatest posek in central Europe in his time, passed away in 1793, the second volume of his responsa was not published until 1811.
  3. In a letter dated Tuesday of Parashat Tetzaveh of 5572 (February 22, 1812), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanow wrote to his hasid, Haim Tzartlis, in Mád, Hungary. In it R. Mendel criticizes the decadence of the westernizing Oberlanders, singling out three practices: the adoption of non-Jewish styles of clothing by Jewish women, carrying parasols on Shabbat, and wearing shirts that button left-over-right instead of right-over-left. R. Mendel instructs his disciple to admonish the townsfolk for this, and adds that if they won’t listen to a Polish rabbi, he should contact the rabbis of Alt-Ofen (Obuda, now part of Budapest) and Pressburg (the two largest communities in Western Hungary at the time), who will surely sympathize with his plight.

We now have a tight little story. Hatam Sofer becomes the rav of a prominent community in 1806, when he was 44 years old, just entering his prime. He sees that the locals carry parasols on Shabbat but does not admonish them for it. A few years later, volume 2 of Noda BiYehudah appears and suggests that this prevalent practice, which the rabbi tolerated if he didn’t approve it, constitutes a bona fide violation of the laws of Shabbat. Another year passes, and word reaches Pressburg that in the east there is opposition to parasols on the grounds that they are an affront to the dignity of Shabbat. Finally, after another year, Hatam Sofer pens a “responsum” (to no one) that explicitly fends off the halakhic argument of the (empiricist, anti-Hasidic) Noda BiYehudah and may implicitly take issue with the criticisms of the Rimanover.

Aside from presenting Hatam Sofer as a preserver of custom and tradition–even lenient ones–in the face of both new empiricist readings and reactionary movements from the east, thus throwing a monkey-wrench into the accepted view of Hatam Sofer as a zealot, we can ask how this story fits into the larger story of Hatam Sofer’s career. Maoz Kahana’s magnificent book on Noda BiYehudah and Hatam Sofer addresses the transition from the approach of the former to that of the latter and lays out the Hatam Sofer’s conscious and sustained “course correction” to the approach of Noda BiYehudah (he does not address the parasol in the book). How does this small story of Hatam Sofer “punching up” against the giant of the previous generation fit into the larger story of Hatam Sofer’s own career? Is it evidence of Hatam Sofer coming into his own?

Let us look at the data to see how it can help us and what its limitations are. It should be noted that, in the case of Hatam Sofer (unlike R. Feinstein), pretty much everything he wrote has been published by now, so unless we know of material that has gone missing, these are the entirety of his responsa. He meticulously recorded his correspondence (and lots more) in notebooks. Moreover, the publication of Hatam Sofer’s responsa began only after his death in 1839, so the idea of publishing responsa to establish authority, like R. Feinstein did, is off the table. Finally, we do not include piskei din, many of which are published in responsa volumes, in this analysis. While piskei din are valuable in their own right, they should be treated as a distinct genre. A rabbinical court often had real, albeit limited, jurisdiction; rabbis, in cases where litigants had no choice but to appear before them, exercised legal authority, not charismatic authority.

The initial temptation is to look at each year in isolation; doing so, we notice a spike in 1814. This gives rise to a theory: Perhaps the parasol responsum is not alone. Perhaps Hatam Sofer systematically reviewed the volume 2 of Noda BiYehudah and wrote responsa wherever he takes issue. That is, the 1814 spike seems to have a “dig here” sign on it.

I tested that hypothesis, and it is wrong. There are dozens of places where Hatam Sofer disagrees with rulings in Noda BiYehudah II, but they are distributed all across the years after 1811.

More fundamentally, though, the spike is not such an outlier. It pales in comparison to the spike we saw in R. Feinstein’s responsa in the late 1950s. It turns out that there’s no “dig here” sign there after all. That does not mean that there is no reason for the year to year spikes and dips, but that there is not necessarily a reason, or that the reasons, whatever they are, only interfere with our attempt to understand his career.

To illustrate, we can compare two dips: the one in 1806-7 and the one in 1809. We can hypothesize that the dip in 1809 is almost certainly related to the fact that Pressburg was besieged and conquered by Napoleon in that year. Indeed, Hatam Sofer wrote an account of the siege and the hardships endured by the community then. This dip does not tell us much about who was and was not writing to Hatam Sofer, and where his sphere of influence extended, because of Napoleon’s interference. The story of 1809 is interesting and significant, but the statistical perspective tells us to discount the dip as evidence of stagnation in Hatam Sofer’s career.

The lull of 1806-7, in contrast, may have a reason that relates specifically to his career. As noted, these years correspond to the beginning of his tenure in Pressburg. His duties in a new and much larger community could have kept him busier and more focused on the needs of the local community, at least at the beginning.

One bit of evidence that may support this hypothesis is that in 1808, when Hatam Sofer’s responsa-writing returns to normal, his sphere of influence is noticeably wider.

The geographical spread of Hatam Sofer’s responsa from 1798-1807

Geographical spread of Hatam Sofer’s responsa from 1798-1808.






So even though the dip of 1806-7 may be noise, it might not be. It might actually tell us something about the significance of the move to Pressburg in establishing him as a regional authority.

Hatam Sofer & EMAs
Hatam Sofer & EMAs

The reason we look at exponential moving average (EMA) is because it provides a good balance between separating signal from noise and responding to changes (a simple moving average is a little too sluggish). Looking at the 10-year exponential moving average (the blue line), we can see major transition periods from 1798-1804 and 1809-1815. This, too, corresponds roughly with the move from Mattersdorf to Pressburg and with Hatam Sofer entering the prime of his career.

In this post, we looked at a relatively small snapshot of Hatam Sofer’s career, roughly from 1804-1814. We demonstrated how the historical setting can help us understand an individual responsum, the heart of the enterprise of studying rabbinic works. We also showed that it is very difficult and sometimes downright silly to draw broad conclusions from these wonderfully idiosyncratic individual examples that populate the larger corpus of responsa. Statistical tools like EMA can be far more helpful with the broad brush strokes.

The thing is, we need both the microhistories of individual responsa as well as the broad brush strokes in order to get at a more complete picture. And we need good tools to show us the signs that say “dig here”. Our hope is that scholars use the tools we are developing to figure out where to dig, to hypothesize, and to test their explanations.

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