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.

World Cup Edition

In honor of the World Cup we thought we’d post a bit on responsa to France and Croatia.

Let’s start with France.

Though it lies outside our main focus (for now), at the beginning of this project we mapped Dr. Pinchas Roth’s data set for the responsa of Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre, or Ri HaZaqen. Dr. Roth has been thinking about mapping responsa for some time now, and has been a supporter of HaMapah from the beginning. He and Prof. Rami Reiner, another friend of HaMapah, are preparing a critical edition of Ri HaZaqen’s responsa.

The methodology here is slightly different, focusing not on explicit addresses but rather mentions:

The pattern is interesting. There’s a clear view of the Tosafist heartland, if you will, in Northern France. And then, remarkably given the era and vastly inferior communications, there are relevant areas quite far from Ramerupt, Troyes, and Dampierre. The distribution is not smaller than 19th century poskim, though the volume is. The enormous advancements in communications will get many more people within the bounds of your cultural sphere to ask you questions, but they didn’t make the sphere bigger.

France’s role in the history of halakhah is well known, of course, but we can still have some love for Croatia. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city of Ragusa, today’s Dubrovnik, was a major financial hub. More than a hundred responsa from Ottoman poskim like R. Shmuel de Medina and R. David HaCohen mention Ragusa or are addressed to it.

Perhaps the most important posek to reside in Croatia was R. David Pardo (1719-1792), author of Mikhtam Le-David, who served in the rabbinate in Spalatro. Among his responsa, in Even HaEzer 9, he addresses how the name of the city would be written in a get. The contemporary name for this city is Split, but Rabbi Pardo, sadly, doesn’t add “דמתקריא Splitsville”.

The Republic of Venice in the mid-18th Century. Note their control of the Dalmatian Coast.

A recurring pattern of note is the cities mentioned–the most prominently featured are Ragusa and Sarajevo. Modern Croatia, a pretty artificial construction, is split; the lower handle of the pliers, if you will, along the Dalmatian coast, on the Adriatic Sea falls into the Venetian, Greek, and Ottoman orbits, and most of the responsa from there are to Saloniki or Venice (R. Pardo was Venetian himself), and often dealing with travelers to and from Sarajevo, placing Split and Ragusa squarely within the context of traditional Balkan Jewry. However, from the northern handle of the pliers, we see responsa from Hatam Sofer to Osijek and Darda, giving us a rough lay of the land and the border between cultural appendages of Hungary and Balkan/Sephardic Jewry.

Among other notable responsa, are Maharshakh 1:138 and Maharashdam Hoshen Mishpat 438, which see the same case–nearly verbatim! A blatant case of historical posek-shopping!

At the end of day, though, much like on the pitch, Croatia can’t quite measure up to France. But a better run than you might have expected.

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.

Signal and Noise: Part I

[Note: Sorry for taking so long. Elli wrote the following post. We were going to post this earlier, but several long and fruitful arguments about signal and noise delayed it, and brought it to the point where it was best split up for size. We have more material ready on this, and we should be able to get back to posting more frequently. Enjoy. –Moshe]

We have given a lot of attention to the “shape” of rabbinic careers over time. Specifically, we have looked at R. Yaakov Ettlinger and R. Moshe Feinstein and tried to consider what may have affected the shape. Factors like R. Ettlinger’s editorship of Der Treue Zionswächter and R. Feinstein’s presence in the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s religious purges, as well as his writing and publishing spike in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we argued, can help explain and understand how their careers developed and how they related to their own writings.

More broadly speaking, however, the goal of HaMapah is not to explain these phenomena as much as it is to show that they exist. Let us illustrate this with a table that shows the number of published responsa written by Hatam Sofer by year.

[Note: the data here is based on Hebrew year – 3760, not the actual Gregorian year. Our date parsing tools are accurate to the day where possible, however, choosing where to assign dates with year only and no further data to the Gregorian year is a bit of a question and a possible noise source].
Another map shows where the responsa were written to (for those with both dates and addresses) during those years. (ideally, open it in a new tab)

What we see here is very uneven. There is a general upward trend from the turn of the nineteenth century until the end of his life, but there is lots of variance from year to year. Before we ask how to account for that, we must ask what exactly needs to be accounted for. We should expect a certain degree of variance from year to year simply because that’s how life works. But what should we expect?

Let us discuss baseball for a moment. Unlike most other sports, much of baseball can be broken down into isolated events: pitcher versus batter. The outcome of any individual event is wildly uncertain, but over time patterns emerge. Certain features of a batter’s performance–the rate at which he strikes out, the rate at which he walks, the rate at which balls put in play result in hits–stabilize over time. There are also local environmental factors that come into play. Smaller parks tend to inflate offense and depress defense, while roomier parks have the opposite effect. Factors like wind, humidity, temperature, and altitude also affect performance. Strength of opponent is, of course, a significant factor. And, of course, there are factors in the personal lives of the players that can have an effect (usually detrimental): injury, illness, exhaustion, and grief, to name a few.

And then there is also simple, blind luck. There is only so much control that a batter can have over a ball hurtling toward him at speeds approaching (or exceeding) 100 miles per hour. Sometimes a well-struck ball finds the glove of a well-positioned fielder. Sometimes the weakest contact results in a base hit. That’s the way the ball bounces.

A basic idea of advanced statistical analysis is to try and isolate the relevant factors, the “underlying” performance of a player, that will give a better picture of who the player really is. It allows us to quantify who has been lucky and who unlucky, and it allows us to determine the specific skill at which a given player excels (or fails). We are able to separate the signal from the noise.

Because of all of the factors mentioned–the “noise”–there is a great deal of year-to-year variance in the actual results of a player’s performance. The overall trend is toward a late-20s peak followed by decline, but the number and rate of hits, home runs, doubles, etc. varies greatly from year to year. Advanced analytics develop different kinds of tools that “smooth” the jagged edges of the year-to-year variance by eliminating or accounting for more and more noise.

It is important to recognize that the “noise” itself has meaning. Poor performance is poor performance, even if it is not indicative of a player’s true talent level. A lucky win still goes in the W column. A player whose home run totals are inflated by Coors Field in Denver still has those home runs to his credit. When a batter faces a pitcher, he either will or won’t get on base. He either will or won’t strike out. This is what gives the game its drama: after all the analysis, the players must still go and play the game, whose outcome is far from certain. All advanced statistics can do is give a good idea of what to expect from a player–a better idea, in fact, than “traditional” statistics that count (noisy) results. They do not tell us what happened or predict with certainty what will happen, though they can predict what will happen with substantially better accuracy than traditional statistics. For instance, FIP predicts next year ERA better than ERA.

Can some of these insights be applied to the study of responsa? Certainly, although there is a certain tension here between the historian and the statistician. For the historian, each responsum is a discrete historical event to be studied on its own. To the extent that the “noise” is part of the event and can be determined, the historian wishes to do so. They are interested in what actually happened.

Statisticians, on the other hand, want to isolate performance from all but the most directly relevant factors. As long as the number of responsa that a given posek wrote in a year is somewhat consistent with expected year-to-year variance, it does not trouble them too much. Whatever may have inflated or depressed the number of responsa that year, even if it was not sheer luck, should be ignored when trying to determine the longer arc of the posek’s career, if the spike or dip is within the typical noise pattern. They want to see transition periods, when the posek breaks out (or in stages), if he declines at the end of his life due to health,  and other larger trends, not blips and aberrations. They’ll want this:

Hatam Sofer & EMAs
Hatam Sofer & EMAs

We’ll get in to more details soon. Stay tuned.