Several Spanish Rishonim mention a place called “Alcolea”. We misidentified it, but we think we got the right one now.

We recently got an email from reader JR Ayaso regarding our identification of the town אלקוליעא, which appears several times in Responsa Rivash, with Alcolea in Almeira Province, in Andalusia. He points out that there are several localities in Spain called “Alcolea” (prompting me to consider writing a song about all these Alcoleas, to the tune of Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh”, but I digress), and suggests that Rivash is referring to Alcolea Del Rio, on the Guadalquivir River, in Seville Province. This prompted me to take a closer look.

Looking at our map of Responsa Rivash shows that Alcolea does, indeed, seem to be a geographical outlier. Since that map will be updated, here’s a screenshot of what it looks like now:

Alcolea is the relatively large green dot southeast of Granada. Almost all of the Rivash’s early responsa were written to Aragon and Navarre. In fact, the only major outliers, we thought, were Alcolea and the dot to the northwest of it, Pinar. It turned out that Pinar was a misidentification of פינה, which is actually Pina De Ebro, in Zaragoza Province, smack dab in the middle of Aragon. So it seems that Mr. Ayaso is correct; we got the wrong Alcolea.

What about Mr. Ayaso’s suggestion that it refers to Alcolea Del Rio? Well, it’s problematic for similar reasons; Seville is even further away from Rivash’s base in Aragon. But that is only two of the 13 Alcoleas on the Spanish Wikipedia disambiguation page. [Protip: When studying such things, look at the Wikipedia page of the local language. The English disambiguation page has only 9 Alcoleas.]

Meyer Kayserling, in his Jewish Encyclopedia entry for “Alcolea”, lists Responsa Rivash as a source on the community and writes that it is in Jaen Province. Jaen is also in Andalusia, and moreover, we found no Alcolea in that province. Perhaps he is referring to one of the other Alcoleas in Andalusia, but it would remain an outlier – possible, but only after discounting other possibilities.

The Jewish Virtual Library has an entry on Alcolea, which they identify, based on Encyclopedia Judaica, with Alcolea De Cinca – in Huesca Province, right in Rivash’s home territory. Furthermore, a while ago Prof. Simcha Emanuel shared with me a monograph by Dr. Zunz, titled “Uber die in den hebräisch-jüdischen Schriften vorkommenden hispanischen Ortnamen.” It is essentially a gazetteer of Iberian place names that appear in Hebrew works. Here’s Zunz’s entry for אלקוליעא:

Zunz points out that it is mentioned in Responsa Rivash and that it has the suffix דסינקה (De Cinca!) in a responsum of Rabbenu Nissim (Ran). Page 63 in the Rome Edition of Responsa Ran corresponds to responsum #30, written in 1349-50. Two other places are mentioned in this responsum about the acceptability of testimony to the betrothal of a woman named Bella. One, as Zunz notes, is אלבליט (or אלבליט דסינקאה), and the other, noted by Leon Feldman, is Lerida (לרידה; Lleida). We have identified אלבליט דסינקאה as Albalete De Cinca, a town that is literally across the River Cinca from Alcolea De Cinca. Lleida, the largest town in the region, is about 30 miles away. Ran’s responsum is thus addressed to the rabbinic leaders of the two small towns involved in the dispute and of the larger town nearby. You can see the dispute moving up the food chain from the village to the larger town to the acknowledged posek of the country.

Rivash was a primary disciple of Ran and, upon the latter’s death, became the leading halakhist of Aragon. It stands to reason that the responsa he wrote to Alcolea were indeed to Alcolea De Cinca, which was firmly in “his” territory, had a documented Jewish community, and had consulted with Rivash’s master when a dispute arose. This is not ironclad proof, but the evidence makes this conclusion the most likely by far.

Thank you, Mr. Ayaso, for asking this question and leading us down this fun little “rabbi hole”.

Some Notes on Place Name Spellings

Some notes on some recent subscription lists we’ve come across and some comments on odd spellings of place names.

We have been following the “Jewish Miscellanies” blog by Jeffrey Maynard for a while. He consistently posts about the rare and interesting books in his collection, mainly, but not only, of Anglo Judaica. Some of the books in his collection have really interesting Prenumeranten lists.

One such book that he wrote about is “Zecher Ov” by Rev. Hanokh Henikh (Henry) Olivenstein, published in 1916. The author was a “Swiss-army Jew” who served communities in Wales. The subscribers include people from lots of places in the UK and elsewhere, but there’s a remarkable cluster of tiny little hamlets in southern Wales, where he ministered. Most of these places do not appear in Kagan’s index. Here’s a screenshot; you can explore further by typing “Wales” in the “English Name” text box in our Searchable Map.

Since the last update of the map, we’ve identified another place in this list: לאמבאראדאך is Llanbradach, Wales. The only place on the Zecher Ov list that we have not identified is נאוי which is in France (or was in 1916).

More recently, Maynard wrote about a volume of R. Meir Dan Plotzki’s Hemdat Yisrael that was published in 1924. The subscribers are from Belgium, England, the US (plus R. Yehuda Leib Graubart in Toronto), and Argentina. It’s a fascinating list that includes many American Orthodox rabbinic and lay leaders. We will have more to say on that in the future, as there are some similar lists.

One interesting feature of this list is the way that some city names are spelled. We have already written how Yiddish place name spellings are phonetic, and so subject to lots of variance, based on dialect. There is also variance based on regional modifiers. For example, if you live in Frankfurt am-Main, you refer to your hometown as Frankfurt. Likewise if you like in Frankfurt an der Oder. In some circumstances, however, you will have to specify which Frankfurt you refer to.

Predictably, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of places whose names mean, simply, “New City”. This includes anyplace named Neustadt or Nove Mesto or Villanova or Ujhely. Naples and Nablus and Newton fit the pattern, too. So when a Hebrew source mentions ניישטאט or עיר חדש, it can be a challenge to disambiguate.

Fortunately, most such places have an additional modifier. To take an example of a pretty famous place, consider Brisk. Today it is known as Brest, Belarus, and it’s easy to see how Brest and Brisk are cognates. But at various times, it was known officially as Brest-Litovsk. What’s the Litovsk? It simply means “Lithuanian”. So the Russian Brest-Litovsk, the Polish Brześć Litewski, and the Yiddish בריסק דליטא simply specify that the reference is to the Lithuanian Brisk, not a different one. In this case, the other one is Brześć Kujawski, בריסק דקויא, or Brest Kujavsk, in Poland.

[Sidebar: The idea that some people call Satmar “Sakmar” because it otherwise means “St. Mary” is silly. As the Brest/Brisk example illustrates, the t/k shift happens elsewhere, and in no language does Satmar or Satu Mare mean “St. Mary”. Perhaps one will argue that just as religious Jews changed Satmar to Sakmar to avoid invoking St. Mary, they changed Brest to Brisk to avoid naughty thoughts? There are other examples – like Saponta, a town very close to Satmar, which is known in Jewish sources as Spinka. At some point, we will post about all the different places in rabbinic sources that are named for saints and other elements of Christianity.]

We do not realize it, but we often do the same thing. To disambiguate the many Springfields, Salems, and Portlands in the USA, we use the state name. Locally, Springfield is Springfield, but in many cases one will need to specify whether one is referring to Illinois, Massachusetts, the fictional setting for “The Simpsons”, or one of the many other Springfields.

When the person writing out the subscriber lists knows about this, they will account for it and use a format similar to the familiar [City, ST] format. But what if they are not? Funny things happen. Consider this responsum from Maharsham:


The דאלעסטעסקא mentioned here is none other than Dallas, Texas. It got all smushed into one word, which is typical for European place names but not American ones.

That’s just one example, though. In the subscriber list for Hemdat Yisrael, we find no less than six examples:

לואי סווילקי

If you want to try to figure these out on your own, stop reading here. We will ID the places at the end of the post.

One peculiar thing here is that 4 of the 6 examples are from Massachusetts. Massachusetts is better represented on the subscriber list, as there were lots of small Jewish communities there, but that does not explain why 2/3 of these examples are from one state. Disambiguation can perhaps explain one of these examples, though we are doubtful about even that.

I (Elli) think that this reflects a peculiar habit of Massachusettsans to add “Mass” as a sort of suffix to cities in that state. If you heard a Massachusettsan speak and had no geographical knowledge, you might easily conclude that there’s a place called “Woostamass”. The transcriber of the subscription lists can easily have made such mistakes.

Anyhow, the places where city and state are contracted into one word (or two oddly-parsed words) are:
Holyoke, MA
Springfield, MA
Fall River, MA
Malden, MA
Denver, CO
Louisville, KY

If you have another theory, we’d love to hear it!

A JewishGen Webinar on Prenumeranten

Yesterday, I (Elli) gave a Webinar for on Prenumeranten as a historical and genealogical resource. It was a lot of fun, but there’s never enough time. Here is a recording.

Prenumeranten in Pittsburgh

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck about the Prenumeranten Project, among other topics, in his virtual “Coffee Room”. It was a great fun. I come on at about the 8 minute mark, but it’s worth listening to Rabbi Yolkut from the beginning.

The material I discuss here, particularly the discussion of Rav Hayim Tzvi Mannheimer’s Eyn Ha-Bedolah and its fascinating prenumeranten from dozens of small towns in the Pittsburgh region.

Rabbinic Wanderlust and Cultural Transfer

An immigrant from Poland to Tunisia in the 19th century tried to bridge cultural worlds while satisfying his wanderlust.

For the past ten years, it has been my delightful lot to help the elect of the human race, to be a deliverer and courier of all kinds of books, old and new, from Sefarad to Ashkenaz and from Ashkenaz to Sefarad. No distance was too great for me. The dry heat of Africa did not stop me, and the ice of Ashkenaz did not deter me….

I witnessed the wisdom of Ashkenaz rejoicing in the courtyards of Sefarad, and the sagacity of Sefarad raising her voice in the streets of Ashkenaz – and it was from me. I brought it about. Though I ate bread in misery, this legacy is more beautiful to me than the legacy of traders in gold and jewels….

Sweeter to my palate were dry bread dipped in stagnant water in the bowels of a ship and bread, dates, and water from a skin on a dune in the Arabian desert than every delicacy of kings and princes.

Sefer HaZikaron, Publisher’s Apologia, Livorno, 1845

Eliezer Ashkenazi was born in Poland in the early 19th century, but Tunis had become his hometown by the mid-1840s. According to his own account, financial circumstances forced him to abandon his yeshiva studies at the age of 17. It seems that his heart remained in the study hall, though, as he became a collector, dealer, copyist, and publisher of Jewish manuscripts.

Through NLI catalog, we can trace the manuscripts that passed through his hands: some he bought, some he copied (or co-copied), and some he commissioned others to copy (and then printed). One he left at the home of a friend in Modena, Italy, and never retrieved. The manuscripts were medieval and modern, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Some of them he saw or acquired in Tunis and elsewhere in North Africa, and others he came upon during his travels.

Like a one-man Mekize Nirdamim society, he published three books and facilitated the publication of several more, all of which consisted of unpublished treatises, letters, liturgical compositions, and commentaries. Of the three he published, all within the span of a decade, the first was Sefer Ha-Zikaron, whose preface, by Ashkenazi, is excerpted above. This book is a supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary by R. Avraham Bakrat, a rabbi who was expelled from Spain and ended up in Tunis in the early 16th century. Ashkenazi discovered the manuscript there and brought it to Livorno to print. He actually printed two editions in that year: one for Italy and one for North Africa; the latter lists sponsors from several Algerian cities: Mostaganem, Tlemcen, Constantine, and Algiers. The former contains several pages of prenumeranten as well as approbations from leading Italian rabbis like the famed Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto) and Yashar (Isaac Samuel Reggio). The list is apparently by order of city traveled, so we can chart his route across northern Italy (with a detour to Rome), from Trieste to Cuneo and on to Marseilles in France. He sold books in c. 40 different cities in all.

His next literary undertaking was four years later. He published Divrei Hakhamim, a compilation of 11 mostly medieval treatises with a clearly rationalist bent. This work was published in Metz. It, too, has several pages of noms des hommes genereux– the names (in French) of those generous people who pre-purchased the book. This list, too, is in order of visits, and here Ashkenazi takes us to almost 100 different places, mainly villages, in Alsace and Lorraine, along France’s border with Germany and the most heavily Jewish regions in 19th century France.

The third book, Ta’am Zekenim (whose title JE creepily translates as “The Taste of Old Men”) was published in Frankfurt in 1855. It is likewise a compilation of several older treatises, with an introduction by R. Eliakim Carmoly, a kindred spirit of Ashkenazi’s who had recently retired from being Belgium’s chief rabbi. There is barely a page of subscribers to this book, from a handful of larger cities. I do not know what accounts for this change in strategy, but it seems likely that he did not visit all of the cities where subscribers lived. I’ve combined the lists for Ta’am Zekenim and Divrei Hakhamim in one map.

The striking thing is that there is no overlap between the places in the Sefer Ha-Zikaron lists and the subsequent lists. It’s almost as though Ashkenazi wanted to tour a different part of the Jewish world when he published his second book. Having done Italy and Africa, he opted to tour France instead. He wrote the preface to Ta’am Zekenim in Marseille – the terminus of his prior tour – in 1854. From there, presumably, he sailed back to Tunis.

After 1855, he seems to have settled down a bit. In 1858, he wrote to Senior Sachs (we see you, Shneur) about the community in Tunis. This letter became the first in a series of dispatches to Ha-Levanon on the history and travails of this community; these articles, listed in the bibliography of the JE entry on Tunis, form the basis for Robert Hattal’s La Chronique d’Eliezer Ashkenazi : sur les juifs de Tunis. In 1868, he copied in Tunis a manuscript of correspondences between R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia (“Ramah”) and Provencal rabbis on behalf of Jehiel Brill, editor of Ha-Levanon, in Paris, who printed it.

It is not likely that Eliezer Ashkenazi would be inducted into the 19th century Hall of Fame of Jewish scholars, bibliophiles, and codicologists. It was a crowded century. He collaborated with some better-known scholars, like the aforementioned Shadal, Yashar, R. Carmoly, Brill, and Sachs, as well as Salomon Munk. Unlike some other, he really pounded the pavement. He had passion and knowledge, and from his introductions to his publications it is clear that he had a flair for playing up his familiarity with both Ashkenaz and Sefarad in order to make his books more enticing. He professes an interest in cross-pollination between Jewish cultures and works to bring it about.

It also seems that he did not travel for the job, but that he picked the job for the travel. He seems to have had a good deal of wanderlust. In addition to the places already mentioned, he also writes of visits to Morocco and Gibraltar, thus completing his circuit of the Western Mediterranean. It is hard to know the effects of his attempts to serve as a cultural bridge and a courier of knowledge and enlightenment, but he considered the endeavor worthwhile, and we tend to agree with him.

On a personal note (and a natural affinity for Ashkenazim named Eliezer), one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 era has been the inability to travel. I have found myself feeding my wanderlust vicariously, through the travels of people like Eliezer Ashkenazi, until things open back up and we can hit the road again.

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.

A Latter-Day Book of Ruth, in Marmaros

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion – an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Of all the books in the Hebrew Scripture, none is more infused with kindness and compassion than the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot. The entire redemptive story turns on acts of compassion: Of youth caring for old age, the wealthy for the impoverished, and the enfranchised for the disenfranchised. It is also the “backstory” of the Davidic dynasty, suggesting that it is such acts that form the bedrock of society upon which David’s kingdom could be built.

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion, an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of Lekhah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the Book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. R. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later, after R. Alkabetz had died.

In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (today’s Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book. As he wrote on the title page [apparently unaware of the Lublin edition]:

It has been many years since this book was printed in Constantinople, in [5]321, and only very few – some here, some there – reached our country. So now, my spirit has moved me to bring it to print a second time, so that the public may benefit from it.

Title page of Shoresh Yishai, Sighet, 1891

This is the first act of kindness we will encounter. A young man who undertakes to reissue a book for public benefit.

A truly astounding feature of this book is that is contains 30 pages of Prenumeranten (you can see them in Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the book, but not the Hebrewbooks upload), the most extensive list that we have encountered. Moreover, like Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, the places are not listed alphabetically – and there are about 450 different stops on this journey. Sure enough, the order of places is chronological, allowing us to retrace the routes of the bookseller. On the way, we were able to identify hundreds of places that do not appear in Kagan’s work or that he was unable to identify. In all, we traced out eight different trips, covering over 400 places. (Some places appear twice because the seller’s routes crossed one another. We can imagine that on his return trip to Dej, he experienced [bad rabbi joke redacted].) These places are all concentrated in the “four corners” area where Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Prior to World War I, this was all Hungary (specifically, “Unterland”). Not even one of these 400+ places is outside of those four contemporary nations. More than that – he came within a kilometer of Galicia, but never crossed the border, nor any international border. (Popout link to the map)

The first stop is the author’s hometown of Novoselytsya, and all of the journeys either start or end in that vicinity. The density here is phenomenal. There were times that we could guess what the next stop would be by simply looking at the map, as our traveler visited nearly every town along the way. The map does not even include “secondary” places. For example, when the traveler visited Khust, he pre-sold copies of the book to eleven students in the yeshiva there, from nine different places. There are hundreds of such “off-route” places mentioned in this list.

This list was a great boon to our project, but we were puzzled. A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz is certainly an interesting book, but the massive publicity campaign and the incredible reception of it seem unwarranted nevertheless. The book was selling like hotcakes. Yeshiva students were buying it. Women – who rarely appear as buyers on Prenumeranten lists from this part of the world – were buying it. It made no sense to us.

Then we reached the end of the list and learned the rest of the story. The typesetter – one Yosef Chajales of Buchach – writes in a colophon how David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children – orphans. He explains how they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book: “Certainly the merits of the author of the sacred book will protect you.”

Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.

After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel from town to town, pre-selling the book. She asks that buyers pay full price – not the discounted pre-publication price – so that she can provide for herself and her orphaned children.

Finally, the brother, Tzvi Elimelekh (the name seems to indicate affiliation with the Hasidic court of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow, author of Bnei Yisaskhar and numerous other works) reports that he completed the publication thanks to the support of the presubscribers. He then blesses them with all kinds of good wishes.

These letters, however, do not capture the lengths to which the brother went, traveling to every one-horse town in the countryside of Northeast Hungary to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. Nor do they capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.

Finally, perhaps this story tells us something about the intersection between book culture and the culture of tzedaka. Had the brother gone from town to town collecting on behalf of his sister and her children, would he have met with as much success? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Had the publisher or an agent gone from town to town selling only the book, would he have met with as much success? Almost certainly not. A book like this is simply not best-seller material.

But together – the book plus the story of the publisher’s premature death and his needy family – they produced a remarkable wave of compassion. Perhaps it was because their generosity would be recorded for posterity in the list of Prenumeranten. Perhaps they thought that the book would serve as a talisman. Perhaps it was simply the cumulative effect of the two factors – the desire to own the book and the desire to help the needy – that produced this remarkable result. The people listed in this book are indeed worthy heirs of Ruth the Moabitess.

Hungarian Orthodox Politics in Yonkers

R. Mordechai Leib Winkler was a major halakhist and an uncompromising separatist from all but the most strictly Orthodox movements. What happened when a colorful individual from Yonkers, NY, invited R. Winkler to weigh in on a local issue?

The Forward recently published (in English and Yiddish) an article I wrote about the ouster of a Hungarian-born rabbi from a Yonkers synagogue almost a century a go. This particular rabbi hole opened when I noticed that R. Mordechai Leib Winkler wrote a responsum to Yonkers. The story seemed interesting, and so I reached out to an old friend, Rabbi Shmuel Hain, rabbi of YIOZ, the present incarnation of the synagogue where the events took place (and where I was scheduled to be a scholar-in-residence soon after). He put me in touch with Nancy Klein, who knew the other side of the story: that the shul’s rabbi was mysteriously deposed, and he cursed his congregants on his way out the door.

A lot of the details were left on the cutting-room floor: the type of details that HaMapah lives for. This is the expanded version of the article. For those who read the Forward article, I apologize that the new wrinkles are mixed together with some repetition.

The responsum sent by R. Winkler (1845-1932) from Mád, Hungary to Shmuel Miller in Yonkers, in January 1923, appears in the second volume of She’elot U-Teshuvot Levushei Mordekhai, R. Winkler’s monumental collection of over 1,500 responsa. It is one of four responsa that he sent to the US; the overwhelming majority of his responsa were sent within Hungary, as can be seen in our map (separate tab).

The responsum in question addresses two questions: “[A] The appointment of a rabbi who served in the rabbinate of a Status Quo community; [B] concerning a ban that this rabbi placed on a ritual slaughterer.” R. Winkler wastes no time in answering the first question: “I cannot hold back my great astonishment. What was this congregation thinking when it gave him the rabbinic position, once this rabbi served for eleven years as the rabbi of a Status Quo community!?” As for the second question, he instructs Miller to take the matter up before a rabbinical court, “and without a doubt there are great and righteous rabbis in New York City who can judge this case.”

What exactly is a “Status Quo” community, and why was Rabbi Winkler so opposed to them? The answer to this requires a deep dive into the history of Hungarian religious/communal politics during the latter half of the 19th and early-20th centuries. In brief, a failed attempt in 1869-1870 to create a single, government-recognized representative body for Hungarian Jewry led to a formal schism between the traditionalist “Orthodox” communities and the modernizing “Neolog” or “Congressional” communities, each with its own supracommunal organization. The Hungarian Parliament accepted the petition of the Orthodox communities to remain separate on March 18, 1870 – Shushan Purim – exactly 150 years ago.

At that point, communities had to choose which national organization to join. In some of the larger cities, the Jewish population split into two or more communities, while smaller cities and towns tended to affiliate with one national organization or the other. In general, southern and central Hungary gravitated toward the Neolog movement, while the older and more densely Jewish northwest (“Oberland”) and northeast (“Unterland”) inclined toward (Ultra-)Orthodoxy.

There was, however, a third option. Communities could choose to join neither of the central organization and thus maintain its autonomy. These latter communities, constituting about 5% of Jewry within the old borders of Hungary (before the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of World War I, sliced up the cadaver of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), were known as “Status Quo”. In contrast to the two larger movements, there was no central association of Status Quo communities (at least not until the late 1920s), and communities declined to join one of the two national organizations for a variety of reasons. In some cases, a small Hasidic congregation within a larger non-Hasidic community would secede and gain official recognition as a Status Quo community. In other cases, a community might have preferred German-style “Neo-Orthodoxy” and therefore wished to remain separate from the relatively hardline mainstream of Hungarian Orthodoxy. In general, though, Status Quo communities were generally quite traditional. Transplanted onto American soil, they would almost certainly be considered “Orthodox”.

This did not stop Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis from firmly rejecting identification, affiliation, and cooperation not only with Neolog communities, but ultimately with Status Quo communities as well. Among the sanctions was that meat from animals slaughtered by shokhtim employed by Neolog or Status Quo communities was regarded as non-kosher, even if the laws of kosher slaughter were meticulously observed. Regardless of personal observance or ideology, one who did not identify as Orthodox was deemed beyond the pale, unfit for inclusion in an Orthodox community.

However, the tripartite division of Hungarian Judaism does not map onto the tripartite division of American Judaism (which was just emerging in the 1920s). It’s not just that the boundaries are drawn differently; religious communities, and how they interface with government, are structured very differently. The fact – and there is no sense denying the fact – that R. Rosenberg was rabbi of a Status Quo – that is, non-Orthodox – community in Hungary would not preclude him from being a bona fide Orthodox rabbi in America, which indeed he was.

Among the leading, non-Hasidic Hungarian rabbis of his day, R. Winkler was perhaps the most uncompromising when it came to drawing bright lines between Orthodox and other groupings. Moreover, places that usually turned to other halakhic authorities were more likely to turn to R. Winkler for questions like this, as I have shown elsewhere. Of all the poskim of the day, R. Winkler was probably the most likely to impose those boundaries on religious communities outside of Hungary – in North America, for instance.

The responsum in question does not name the Yonkers rabbi alleged to have served in a Status Quo community, but we can be certain that it was indeed Rabbi Philip (Shraga) Rosenberg. R. Winkler provides the crucial evidence when he writes, in that same responsum: “I am astounded! What were you thinking when you accepted this rabbi, who was the rabbi in Neustadtel Novemesto, which is Status Quo….” In fact, before immigrating to the United States, Rabbi Philip Rosenberg was the rabbi of that town – today Nové Mesto nad Váhom, Slovakia – which was indeed a “Status Quo” community. On the title page of his first book, Bigdei Serad,a collection of Shabbat and holiday sermons, he lists “Ir Hadash (Novemesto)” as one of the places where he served as rabbi. In the introduction, he thanks the people of “Nove Mesto (Ir Hadash)”, among whom he dwelled for seventeen years. (“Nove Mesto” means “New City” in Czech and Slovak.)

Title page of Bigdei Serad, a collection of Rabbi Shraga (Philip) Rosenberg’s Shabbat and holiday sermons. He is listed as the rabbi of Congregation Knesses Yisroel of Cleveland who formerly served in Pezing [today Pezinok, Slovakia] and Ir Khodosh (Novemesto) in Old [= pre-World War I] Hungary and in Yonkers, New York.

Having established R. Winkler’s hard line against communities that did not affiliate with Orthodoxy – and their functionaries – and having established that R. Rosenberg served as the rabbi of just such a community, we can see how R. Winkler’s responsum provided a basis for terminating R. Rosenberg’s employment, and we can understand why he would feel victimized by such inquisitorial heresy-hunting and lash out accordingly.

This, however, does not tell the whole story. Although Rabbi Winkler was firmly established as a leading Hungarian rabbi, our findings at HaMapah have consistently shown that halakhic authority, until after World War II, was a regional phenomenon. In this case, Rabbi Winkler’s authority crossed the Atlantic because his opinion was solicited by a crucial figure in this story: Shmuel Miller.

At first glance, it would seem that Miller’s involvement revolved around Rabbi Rosenberg’s disqualification of a local ritual slaughterer. This, after all, was the subject of his query to Rabbi Winkler, and vendettas are born of much lighter offenses. However, a closer look at the fascinating and colorful Shmuel Miller – his New York Times obituary barely scratches the surface – reveals that his problems with Rabbi Rosenberg ran deeper.

Shmuel Miller is Dr. Simon Miller (1887-1971), a Yonkers dentist who served as a lay leader of Ohab Zedek and local chapters of Zionist organizations. He was born in Hungary but immigrated to the United States as a child, along with other members of his family. His grandfather, Rabbi Nathaniel  Miller was the rabbi of a Yonkers congregation according to an 1897 responsum of Rabbi Eliezer Deutsch (Responsa Peri Ha-Sadeh #8) – perhaps the first responsum addressed to Yonkers. Simon Miller was also the founder, editor, and frequent contributor (under his own name and various pseudonyms) of a journal called Apiryon, a short-lived Hebrew-language monthly that included rabbinic sermons and homilies, news from the Jewish world (especially the US, Pre-Trianon Hungary, and Mandatory Palestine), book reviews, eulogies, and a great deal of commentary and editorializing.  Although its editorial office was in the Flagg Building in Yonkers, it was printed at the Katzburg Brothers printing house.

Title page of the first volume of Apiryon (1923-1924), edited and published by Shmuel (Simon) Miller in Yonkers, but printed at the Katzburg Brothers printing house in Budapest.

The choice of the Katzburg printing house was no accident, as Miller’s sister was married to David Tzvi Katzburg, the editor of the noted Hungarian Orthodox rabbinic journal, Tel Talpiyot. (Their son, Nathaniel Katzburg, the noted historian of Hungarian Jewry, was thus a nephew of Simon Miller and a great-grandson and namesake of Nathaniel Miller.) In addition to Apiryon and Tel Talpiyot, the Katzburgs published the works of some of Hungary’s leading rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler.

The Katzburg family – and Simon Miller by extension – developed a complex relationship with Hungary’s leading Orthodox rabbis. Miller and the Katzburgs were Zionists, while most leading Hungarian rabbis – including Rabbi Winkler and his renowned son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky – opposed Zionism, even while favoring Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine. Yet they remained on excellent terms with the rabbis and had deep respect and allegiance to them. David Tzvi Katzburg is the addressee in eight of Rabbi Winkler’s responsa, several of which tackle some of the day’s most pressing issues.

There were also issues about which Zionists and the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinate agreed: opposition to the Orthodox, anti-Zionist Agudath Israel movement. It may seem counterintuitive, but the Hungarian rabbis opposed the Agudah more vehemently than they opposed Zionism. Their opposition to Zionism was tactical; they did not want to seem like anything less than patriotic Hungarian citizens. Within communities, especially on the periphery, Zionism and Orthodoxy coexisted, in some places more comfortably than others. The Agudah, on the other hand, which deigned to represent a global Orthodoxy, was seen as a direct threat to the autonomy of the Hungarian rabbinate, so their opposition to it was total.

We thus find that Simon Miller had similar attitudes: He was a Zionist, yet he conveyed respect for leading Hungarian Orthodox rabbis. In the second volume of Apiryon, Miller, writing under the pseudonym “the Young Doctor”, describes the founding of the first Zionist society in Yonkers in the study hall of Ohab Zedek, and in the very next article, eulogizes two renowned Hungarian Orthodox rabbis and also gives high honor to Rabbi Winkler.

Miller was also a strong opponent of Agudah, attacking it from both the Zionist angle and the Hungarian Orthodox angle in the pages of Apiryon as he chronicles the 1926 visit of several leading Agudists to the United States. He writes triumphantly of the Agudah’s failure to gain a foothold on American soil. His sharpest barbs are reserved for Rabbi Leo Jung of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, though he also lists “minor rabbis” who allied themselves with Agudath Israel, one of whom is named Rosenberg. A JTA report of that same 1926 visit confirms that the rabbi in question is “Rabbi Dr. Phillip [sic] Rosenberg, of Cleveland, Ohio.” Other than one other instance where he is named as a sympathizer with the anti-Zionist Agudists, Rabbi Rosenberg is not mentioned in the pages of Apiryon, even as he was the rabbi of the synagogue where the journal’s editor served as an officer.

Prof. Adam Ferziger, in an article about a debate that raged in the pages of Apiryon, notes that Miller, despite his clear, lifelong affiliation with Orthodoxy, was critical of the stark separation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox groupings in Hungary and Germany (a separatism that Agudath Israel promoted). His critique, wrapped in a thick layer of cynicism, is apparent already in the first volume of Apiryon.

Miller was thus acutely aware of the various configurations of “Orthodoxy” that obtained in different countries around the world, and he was critical of the Hungarian model even as he served as the president of an Orthodox synagogue in America. He also knew full well that Rabbi Rosenberg, a supporter of Agudath Israel, was as “Orthodox” as any rabbi in America. And yet, in order to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster, Miller was willing to marshal the support of the most uncompromising of Hungary’s separatist rabbis. It is unlikely that Miller genuinely believed that a rabbi who had served in a Hungarian Status Quo community could not then serve an American Orthodox one. After all, in Apiryon, Miller refers to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan – the founder of Reconstructionism, who by the early 1920s was well-known for holding heterodox views – as “Haredi” (which, at the time, was considered the Hebrew equivalent of “Orthodox”)! It seems clear, then, that his question to Rabbi Winkler was a cynical ploy to engineer Rabbi Rosenberg’s ouster.

There are several final plot twists and ironies in this tale. As Mrs. Klein wrote, Rabbi Rosenberg managed to convince the congregation to accept his son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, as their rabbi, while he took over his son’s pulpit in Cleveland. Amazingly, this was not the first time that Rabbi Rosenberg worked out such a compromise. Rabbi Philip Rosenberg’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg, was rabbi of the town of Tasnad, Romania (then Hungary). As reported in the Tasnad Yizkor Book (pp. 38-39), when the father passed away in 1898, the son immediately became a candidate to succeed him. However, some members of the community opposed his appointment, spreading the rumor that he had studied for several years at the (more Western-facing) Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. After several rounds of fighting, the young Rabbi Philip Rosenberg worked out a compromise: He would withdraw his candidacy in favor of his sister’s husband. The community agreed, and so Rabbi Rosenberg moved away, first to Pezinok and then to Nove Mesto.

A second plot twist appears in another responsum from Rabbi Winkler, dated February, 1929. The question is whether one is permitted to officiate at the wedding of someone who converted to Judaism in the presence of “the cult of Reformers” – that is, whether such a conversion is valid. Predictably, Rabbi Winkler rules stringently and requires them to convert again. The only surprise is the identity of the questioner: Rabbi Shraga Rosenberg of Cleveland! The victim of Rabbi Winkler’s boundary-drawing was consulting with him on questions of drawing boundaries! Did Rabbi Winkler forget that Rabbi Rosenberg had served a Status Quo community? Did he never learn his name? Was Rabbi Rosenberg unaware of the role Rabbi Winkler played in his ouster from Yonkers? Or had time healed that wound? It is worth noting that in his introduction to Bigdei Serad, R. Rosenberg mentions his Yonkers years without a hint of bitterness, even thanking Ohab Zedek for replacing him with his son.

R. Rosenberg’s son, Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg, remained at Ohab Zedek for close to half a century, though he is better known for serving as the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Unions kashrut division from 1950 until his death in 1972, and for transforming kosher-certification in America. His disciple and successor, Rabbi Berel Wein, recounts that his integrity was reflected in a phrase that he would use when presented with plans that included shortcuts and workarounds: “Vos zogt Got?” (“What does God say?”). It is tempting to think that he internalized the need for integrity and principle in the field of kashrut after witnessing how his father, after trying to remove a ritual slaughterer, was accused of eating the “non-kosher” meat slaughtered by a Status Quo slaughterer.

Finally, several months ago, the Orthodox Union appointed Rabbi Moshe Hauer as its new executive director. Rabbi Hauer’s wife, Mindy, is a granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Rosenberg and a great-granddaughter of R. Shraga Rosenberg. Despite the attempt to undermine his Orthodox credentials, two of his descendants have risen to the top of the American Orthodox establishment. It seems that Rabbi Rosenberg got the last laugh.

Jew In The City? Population and Responsa

Many of our readers are probably familiar with JewishGen, the premier resource for Jewish genealogical research. For quite some time, we’ve had our eye on their Communities Database, which contains information on the history, names, coordinates, environs, and population for Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We have often used it to help us identify places, which involves a lot of guesswork since their search engine only allows Latin characters without diacritics.

You may have noticed the JewishGen logo to the right. We put that there because we recently met with the good folks at JG, and we agreed to all help each other out by sharing data and resources with each other and with the public.1Be advised: Moshe will happily go the full NASCAR for datasets.

What does this mean? It means new and better toys. For instance, that thing about not being able to search for places by Hebrew characters? Well check out our searchable map of Hebrew place names:

As of now, this table has a bit under 4000 place name variants in Hebrew characters. Once we complete the merge of our list with JG’s list, that number will more than double. And we have also started merging these lists with Berl Kagan’s Sefer Prenumeranten. Play around with it. There’s nothing like it, and this is just an “alpha” version.

It also means that Moshe got to play around with the population data in the Communities Database. We have wondered for some time whether there is any relationship between the population of a community and the number of responsa sent there. 

So is there a relationship? The short answer: It’s complicated.

Let’s compare some of our favorites (a note: we used 1900 for availability reasons, surprisingly, there’s not a strong penalty for correlation when using earlier poskim). We’ve dropped communities with over 20,000 Jews from the graph, and also because there might be other effects going on over there.2I have a very strong suspicion that this is subject to a major prewar / postwar gap.

If this reads as a horrible mess to you, then you’ve read it correctly. This is the picture of statistical noise. 

[We’re going to use a lot of numbers here, so for those who aren’t into mathy stuff, here’s the baalebatish version: A perfect positive correlation between number of responsa and population would mean that the bigger the city, the more responsa, no exceptions. It would have a score of 1. If it had a perfect relationship but it wasn’t a straight line, its Pearson correlation coefficient would be a bit lower while Spearman would remain at 1. A perfect negative correlation would mean that the bigger the city, the fewer responsa (or the more responsa, the smaller the city), no exceptions. It would have a score of -1 (again, with Pearson being lower if it isn’t linear). A score of zero means that there’s no correlation at all. With this, the numbers that express the correlation should be basically intelligible and always between -1 and 1.]

The strongest individual correlation here is Mahari Aszod at a whopping R=0.175, and he’s not even near contemporaneous. Among the poskim who were active around then, we have Avnei Nezer at R=0.04, Beit Yitzchak at R=0.11, Divrei Malkiel at R=-0.04(!), and leading the pack, Levushei Mordechai at R=0.14 (Pearson). Using Spearman it teases out a little higher, but still nothing awe-inspiring.

Let’s keep going: what happens when we sum the place counts together?

As evidenced by the trendline (or the eye test), it’s pretty grim.

Even just looking at the count of books we have, it doesn’t really get better. Regardless of whether you use Pearson, Kendall3For the not mathematically inclined: yeah, you can forget about Kendall, don’t bother., or Spearman, R<0.1.4I thought of using more, but I’m scared of P-hacking it by throwing more metrics at it.

I don’t really know quite what to make of it. The main thing I suspect: as a place becomes bigger and more independent, it needs to ask fewer questions (i.e., larger towns “clear the neighborhood”), offsetting the increase in populations (or at least roughly). In that case, there would be a population “sweet spot” in which a town is big enough that it generates lots of questions but not so big that local talent can handle them adequately. And then we might see something like the curve we get if we wildly overfit a trendline:

This remains an open question for me, but I still wanted to publish this. Let me explain myself. Firstly, given the amount of noise here, it’ll take a long time for us to fully clarify the issue.

Elli asked me the following questions when I showed him the draft, and I think they’re interesting:

  1. Maybe we should simply disregard towns that were known to have rabbis who wrote responsa, and then look at the rest?
  2. There’s a “nudnik effect”: Like Levushei Mordechai to his son-in-law in Galante.
  3. Or maybe it’s not about cities at all, but about people. The carryover we saw in Hungary – maybe it was really carryover of individuals, not cities. 

With regards to (1), well, it wouldn’t bump off enough places to make a dent, and you’d probably just drop it even further. As for (2-3), well, it’s actually all the more striking. These are both very real effects (look for Yaavetz’s over the top disses of some of his questioners(!) in She’elat Yaavetz), but strangely, even this doesn’t bear some obvious statistical linkage to population. These are all real questions, and it’s really very possible the answer could change with more data, but given the data we have at the moment, it’s clear we’d need a lot more data to truly get clarity on this issue.

So why discuss this at all? Well, one of the scourges of modern science is ‘P-Hacking’. To quote Wikipedia: “[P-hacking] is the misuse of data analysis to find patterns in data that can be presented as statistically significant, thus dramatically increasing and understating the risk of false positives. This is done by performing many statistical tests on the data and only reporting those that come back with significant results.”

For a simple example, if we look at statistically significant as being P < 0.05 (less than a 5% probability of occurring by random chance), well, if we look at 50 different foods in a diet study, we’ve now got over a 90% chance of finding something ‘statistically significant’ by random chance alone.5This is not a random example, those articles about diet studies showing ‘kale causes cancer’ or whatever are almost always p-hacking.

We’ve published stuff with attempts at very concrete findings — take our post on the handover of rabbinic leadership in Hungary, for example. Honesty dictates that we also on occasion say: ‘it’s hard to see a signal in the noise here’, even if you can’t get a journal to publish ‘nothing much to see here, folks’.

I wanted to title this post “Baby Keep It Real With His People”, referencing the hit song ‘Baby‘ by Lil’ Baby (feat. DaBaby). Sadly, despite my best efforts, the number of fans of both responsa and Atlanta hip-hop remains small, so it went. Suffice it to say, in both data and rap, HaMapah supports Quality Control.

A Sweet Treat from Crete

Material history is often overlooked, and the material history of halakhah is no exception. As new products and technologies become available, they change life dramatically and enable new ways of thinking about the world. Coffee is probably the most famous example of material history shaping intellectual and halakhic history (thanks to Elliot Horowitz’s indispensable case study), but it is one of myriad examples. Consider, for example, the affect that refrigeration had on the study of the laws of salting meat (melichah). What was once common knowledge has become an area of specialization. And so forth.

Here is another example: Some innovative Mediterranean sugar refiners made Pesach a good deal more enjoyable.

Section 48 of the Minhagim of R. Shalom of [Wiener-]Neustadt states that the common custom is to refrain from eating sugar on Pesach, because flour was added to the mixture in the final stage of the refining process. Then, on the last day of one Pesach in Neustadt, a member of the study circle named R. Zanvel brought sugar from Crete that he was certain had no flour in it, so they all partook from the sugar he brought.

I do not know why flour was added during the refinement process, and why that step was skipped in Crete, but this episode takes place in the late-14th or early-15th century, just as the Cretan sugar industry began to flourish, along with other Christian-controlled areas of the Mediterranean Basin.

From J.H. Galloway, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry”

J.H. Galloway’s article, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry” (Geographical Review 67:2 [1977], pp. 177-194), offers a fascinating view of the industry in the period after the Black Plague, the decline of certain sugar-producing areas, and the rise of others. Apropos of an episode that took place on Pesach, the article also describes the consolidation of the industry on plantations and the increasing use of slave labor (he mentions Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, and Tartars) in sugar production – long before the New World entered the picture.

Perhaps it is thanks to this R. Zanvel that Ashkenazim no longer refrain from sugar on Pesach. It seems that we dodged a bullet there. There is one other suggestive aspect of this source.

During this period, when Crete was ruled by Venice, it was known by a different name: Candia. In the source mentioned above, the Hebrew place name is קנדי (which, based on the evidence, we feel comfortable identifying as Crete or Heraklion, the island’s largest city). In English sources, too, the island and/or its largest city are known as Candy!

Did the Cretan (Candian) sugar industry and its method of refining without flour give us the with the word “candy”? Alas, no etymological dictionaries make this connection. It was a fun hypothesis, though.

Here is the passage from R. Shalom’s Minhagim:

מנהגי מהר”ש מנוישטט סימן מח
וכן נמי נוהגין שלא לאכול צוקר בפסח כי משימין בתוכה קמח, ואע”פ כשמבשלין הקנים שיש בהם הצוקר מבשלין אותן ד’ או ה’ פעמים שאין משימין בו קמח, מ”מ באחרונה משימין קמח ביורה, ולכן אין אוכלין שום צוקר בפסח. הגה’. שמעתי ממה”ר שלום ז”ל שפעם אחת אכלו הלומדים יחדיו בעיר נוישטט בי”ט האחרון של פסח, ונתן להם הח”ר זנוויל ז”ל צוקר שהביא עמו מעיר קנדי, ואמר שברי לו שאין בתוכו שום חימוץ ואכלוהו עמו

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