The Prenumeranten Project and Other Good News

We’re part of Haifa U’s digital humanities lab, we won a nice grant to work on a really cool project, and in short, things are moving.

We have some good news to share. 

First, HaMapah is now a project of e-Lijah Lab, a digital humanities laboratory at The Department of Jewish History and Bible Studies in the University of Haifa. One of the e-lab’s goals is to provide digital platforms for the public to participate in research. We will be unveiling a crowdsourcing site in the near future, where users will be able to help our efforts, and where we will release functional tools as we develop them and reach a critical mass of data. 

We have also become big fans of the e-Lijah Lab ecosystem. At present, there are six or seven DH projects participating in the lab, and there’s a lot of synergy and cross-pollination. It’s relatively new, but there’s no other Digital Judaica incubator like it in Israel, perhaps in the world. We’re excited to be part of it.

The other big news is that we won a substantial and prestigious grant (from a foundation that prefers anonymity) for a project that we proposed together with Prof. Marcin Wodzinski of the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław (and author of the astoundingly gorgeous and informative Historical Atlas of Hasidism; you can read Elli’s review here). Over the next three years, we will be developing a comprehensive database of “Prenumeranten” – the subscriber lists that appeared in c. 1500 Hebrew books printed primarily in Europe during the 18th – 20th centuries. These lists are a gold mine of information about all kinds of under-explored aspects of Jewish history and intellectual cultures (in addition to the obvious data points: hundreds of thousands of names, aggregate data on cities and towns, their functionaries, and the institutions that operated within them, etc.). We’ll be writing more about it here and elsewhere, but let us look at two examples.

Below is an image of one of eight pages of subscribers to Sefer Zekhuta De-Avraham, a collection of homilies by R. Avraham Landau, the Rebbe of Tchechnov (Ciechanów, Poland), published posthumously by his sons in 1895. It is clear from the full list that a good chunk of the audience was Polish Hasidim. Among the institutions mentioned as subscribers are groups and shtiblekh of Hasidim affiliated with Polish dynasties: Alexander, Gur, Amshinov, and Tchechnov. This is informative, but not surprising. We also get names of rabbis, teachers, judges, and ritual slaughterers of the various towns – these are highlighted in yellow. 

There was one functionary, common to several towns, that was unfamiliar to us: “Gabbai De-Tikun Sefarim”. We asked several experts, none of whom had ever heard of this title, either. From what we can piece together, we tentatively suggest that this originally referred to a functionary whose role was to repair the books in the synagogue of beit midrash. As books became cheaper and more abundant, the role expanded to be a sort of librarian with the authority to acquire books on behalf of the community. Several of the contemporary gabba’im (and gabba’ot) de-tikun sefarim were very excited about this.

The second example is from R. Yitzhak Isaac Spirn of Komarno’s Nidvat Pi. Some readers may recall that Elli published the commentary on Mishnah Kinim from this book in honor of his son becoming bar mitzvah two years ago (if you didn’t, you can request access here; R. Yitzhak Isaac is the topic of Yakov Z. Mayer’s master’s thesis as well). At the time, Elli noticed a few interesting features of the list of subscribers that appears at the end of this book.

The orange highlights are patronyms. The blue highlights are surnames that derive from communal occupations. The yellow highlights are institutions. These are fairly commonplace.

More interesting are the purple and green highlights. The green highlights are surnames – not interesting in themselves, but note that there are only some people have surnames. In fact, it seems to depend on the place. In some places people had surnames, and in some places they didn’t. The book was published in the mid-19th century, and most of these towns are in what was then Hungary. Ruther research is needed, but it seems that what we have here is a snapshot from when Jews in the Habsburg Empire were assigned surnames. Places closer to the capital and larger towns seem to have gotten there first, followed by small towns and villages far from the center of the empire. It will be fascinating to trace this more systematically.

The purple highlights show where subscribers identified themselves by their mothers’ names. We have not seen this anywhere else (yet), so it is quite extraordinary. What is going on?The author of the book was a Hasidic Rebbe with a reputation for being a ba’al moyfes, a miracle worker. The prayers and blessings of such tzadikim were thought to be very powerful. Moreover, in his thesis (p. 65), Mayer points us to the author’s introduction to the list of subscribers:

Here, R. Yitzhak Isaac “stretches his hands out to the heavens” on behalf of all of those who are “engraved” in this book. He prays that “they shall be blessed with the blessings written in the Torah” and so forth. Traditionally, in blessings on prayers on behalf of another, the mother’s name is used. 

It seems, then, that the subscribers to this book were not only interested in adding it to their personal collection, but saw it as a way to gain the tzadik’s blessing (whether this was part of R. Yitzhak Isaac’s marketing strategy is unknown), and so they subscribed under matronyms, as it was considered more auspicious for such purposes. This sheds some light on the inner religious world of those who purchased such books. 

In short, there’s some fascinating stuff here, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. We apologize for not posting for a while, but we’ve been busy, and we can’t wait to share some of the fruit of our most recent labors.

One thought on “The Prenumeranten Project and Other Good News”

  1. This looks very interesting and it should give a picture of the ‘anonymous’ intelligentsia that is ‘unknown’ territory. It is a very promising initiative.

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