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.

6 thoughts on “The Shape of a Rabbinic Career: Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger”

  1. I love the blog – behatzlacha!

    A question about the data in this post and what you can learn from them: Are you working with published or also unpublished responsa? Even if the latter, how confident are you that you have all of them or a representative sample? Assuming we’re talking about collections of responsa, it seems to me that you might not be able to draw strong conclusions about the temporal trajectory of the career of the posek, though there still might be interesting things to say about the curating and publishing (whether by the writer or by others).

    To put it more concretely: It may be that the number of responsa from each year published by (e.g.) R. M. Feinstein tells us less about how much responding he did at various times in his career, and more about the attention he devoted to publishing his responsa at different times in his life, the market for the published works, and so on.

    1. Now I read your follow-up post, I see others have already made this point. Tell them to put it in the comments next time!

  2. Very cool analysis! It was fascinating to see that the rate of writing teshuvot for a posek does not necessary follow a normal distribution. I was curious to corroborate that this is the case for all of Igrot Moshe, which it is apparently. In case this data is useful to you guys…

    Shapiro-Wilk normality test

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$EH1
    W = 0.69258, p-value = 9.859e-11

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$EH2
    W = 0.19733, p-value < 2.2e-16

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$EH3
    W = 0.44007, p-value = 8.847e-15

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$EH4
    W = 0.58438, p-value = 1.119e-12

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$HM1
    W = 0.69837, p-value = 1.289e-10

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$HM2
    W = 0.69771, p-value = 1.25e-10

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$OH1
    W = 0.57137, p-value = 6.914e-13

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$OH2
    W = 0.30687, p-value < 2.2e-16

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$OH3
    W = 0.45343, p-value = 1.33e-14

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$OH4
    W = 0.57243, p-value = 7.19e-13

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$OH5
    W = 0.3129, p-value = 2.509e-16

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$YD1
    W = 0.66893, p-value = 3.41e-11

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$YD2
    W = 0.49775, p-value = 5.424e-14

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$YD3
    W = 0.58964, p-value = 1.364e-12

    data: IgrotMoshePlot$YD4
    W = 0.42398, p-value = 5.466e-15

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